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Teaching Formats for Small Group Philosophy Tutorials

by Alexandre Guilherme


Teaching Formats for Small Group Philosophy Tutorials:
An Emphasis on Situated Learning


Abstract: In this paper I wish to investigate a new approach to teaching philosophy in small groups. I consider the classic format for tutorial groups to be highly unsatisfactory, for reasons such as poor teaching strategy, and allowing shy and unprepared students to hide behind its format. The new formats are highly based on a 'situated learning' approach to student learning, which is in direct contrast to the more 'constructivist' approach of the classical format. I shall demonstrate that from the teacher's, as well as from the student's, perspective the situated learning approach is more desirable as it improves student participation and preparation to tutorial classes as well as helping in the clarification of student's doubts.

Introduction

Hawley (2002:90) notes that "we cannot teach philosophy through lectures alone. Lectures can play an important role in introducing issues and literature, but reading, writing and discussion are also required. So lectures are usually supplemented by tutorials or seminars — these provide a forum for discussion, an incentive for reading, and preparation for writing."[1] This passage sums up the importance of tutorials or seminars very well, as it encapsulates its importance as an important factor in teaching philosophy since it foments discussion, reading and writing. Whilst this is true in theory, my experience as an undergraduate student was very mixed — I would grade at least half of the tutorials during my undergraduate course as very poor, some as good, and a handful as excellent. The problem was that there was no focus for the tutorial, there was no teaching strategy, i.e. it seems that there was no set of aims as to what should be learned in each tutorial, as well as no strategy to deliver such outcome. Hence, my interest in tutorial formats for small groups in teaching philosophy. I did not wish my students to have the same (bad) experience I had as an undergraduate student. In this paper, I wish to share with colleagues my recent experience in running six tutorial groups for a first year course, namely Ethics and Values, at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Durham, where I devised three different tutorial formats in trying to find the best way to teach philosophy in small group tutorials. Thus, this paper will be divided into two parts. The first part will characterise both the classic format for tutorials and demonstrate the problems with such format, and also characterise what it is meant by small tutorial groups, and try to demonstrate what I consider to be the ideal for such groups. The second part will focus on three different tutorial formats devised by myself, and assess the effectiveness of such formats as an aid for my teaching as well as for student learning.


I. Small Group Tutorials and The Classic Format

I must provide the reader with some sort of characterisation for what it is meant by small groups tutorials. Griffiths (1999:91) notes that it is rather problematic to try to characterise 'small group' in higher education since some institutions use the term 'tutorial' and others the term 'seminar' for small groups. Some writers have even given up on such terminology, preferring to use the term 'discussion group'.[2] In this essay I will use the term 'tutorial' to mean 'small group', since this is the term I am used to, as well as being the term used on the institution I work for. There is also a problem concerning the exact number that should constitute a small group; some more generous institutions will mean by tutorials, one to one meetings between a student and a tutor, where they will discuss a particular issue; other institutions, however, mean by tutorial, the meeting of some twenty students and their tutor, to discuss a particular topic. In the my department tutors are allocated some eight students per tutorial class, and I have been allocated six tutorial groups that meet fortnightly to the Ethics and Values course. Students are also usually drawn out of the same college, so that they can get to know each other better. I believe this setting to be quite ideal for the following two reasons:

i. a class of around eight facilitates students getting acquainted with each other, and the fact that they all come from the same college adds to this. This facilitates 'breaking the ice' during discussions, as well as helping with students supporting each other through the sharing of notes and books, clarification of doubts, and so on.

ii. a class of around eight students can generate very lively discussion, since there is space for all students to participate. A larger class makes almost impossible for all students to participate in discussion, and make it easier for umprepared and shy students to hide (I will come back bellow to the issue of students being shy or not coming prepared to tutorials).

True, a smaller class, viz. 5-6 students, would improve even further student participation and preparation. Also true is that more frequent meetings, viz. weekly rather than fortnightly, would also improve learning. For matters of space, I do not wish to take the issue of what constitute the ideal size for a tutorial group here, it suffices to say that I believe for the reasons given above that a tutorial class of eight is quite ideal, and that it is to be preferred to much larger classes.

Let me now provide the reader with some characterisation of the classic tutorial format. The classic format for tutorials requires that students read an specific text and discuss it during the tutorial class — and this is the kind of format I experienced as an undergraduate student. The problem with this format is that many students do not speak because they are either shy or are unprepared (i.e. they have not done their reading) — there are long spells of unproductive silence. Moreover, in this classic format, many students fail to learn the terminology and concepts (and how to use them), as many students do not feel at easy to ask questions and clarify their doubts — true, the terminology and concepts are covered by the lectures, but many students only understand their proper usage through debating (and using those terms and concepts on a 'hit and miss' basis). There is also no focus, i.e. there is no clear question, that is supposed to be answered by tutees (i.e. Tutors tend to say: so, what did you think?), which leaves open for the discussion to wonder around many paths, leading to miscommunication — this is unproductive as students may start talking about different issues within the same topic (e.g. some students may talk about their opinion about the text, and other students about the theory itself).

Now that I have provided the reader with some characterisation for what it is meant by small groups or tutorials, as well as a characterisation of the classic format of tutorial, I will move on to the second part of this paper where I will deal with the issue of the three different teaching formats for tutorials I devised in an attempt to find the best way to teach philosophy in small group tutorials.


II. Different Tutorial Formats and their Effectiveness

As I mentioned above the classic format of tutorials faces some problems, such as lack of focus and poor teaching strategy, which I judge to be detrimental to student learning. To combat those problems, viz. poor student participation, students being unprepared, lack of focus, and lack of teaching strategy, I have devised three teaching formats in an attempt to find out what would be the best way to teach philosophy in small groups, as follows:

i. one student presentation (on a text of his/her choice from the reading list on the tutorial topic), followed by 'brain-storming' (i.e. I ask students for definitions, check if they have understood certain concepts, e.g. what is suicide?, tell me the pros and cons of holding a particular view, e.g. the pros and cons of deontology, and I also try to make them see the relation between different philosophical theories, e.g. the relation between deontology and teleology), followed by a tutorial question, e.g. what is morality?, which is taken from the course booklet and is a formative/summative essay question (i.e. in this part of the tutorial class the group is given a question to discuss among themselves, I often during this part act as 'devil's advocate' by putting students on the spot, and pinning some students against each other, e.g. a student who is a convicted deontologist against another student who is a convicted teleologist, this makes to very fruitful and interesting discussions);

ii. two student presentations (on two different texts of their choice from the reading list and on the tutorial topic), followed by 'brain-storming', followed by tutorial question;

iii. no student presentations, but buzz groups (i.e. students are asked to discuss the topic, e.g. deontology, for ten minutes in groups of twos or threes), followed by 'brain-storming', followed by the tutorial question.

Each format was allocated at random to two tutorial groups, so that I have two groups experiencing each format. I have not explicitly told students that I am trying three different formats with different groups, but I have not hidden this fact either — my students are welcome to come to different tutorial classes, if they missed theirs, and thus many of them have experienced the other tutorial formats. Some of my peers at the PGCHE [Postgraduate Certificate of Higher Education] course, at the Faculty of Education of the University of Durham, were concerned about my use of three different teaching formats in the same course — my reply to this was that there are another four teachers teaching this same course and thus there are at least another four different strategies at place. Moreover, the three tutorial formats are not that different from each other, that is to say, that only the first part of the formats differs from each other by the fact that two groups have one student presentation, two groups two student presentation and the other two groups no presentations but buzz groups. Apart from this fact they are exactly the same in the second part, namely brain-storming, and third part, namely tutorial question.

Noteworthy here is that i. the brain-storming part of the tutorial provide clarifications for the terminology and concepts, and how to use these; and that ii. the tutorial question part of the tutorial class gives a better focus to the tutorial topic and class, as it focus the students' attention in answering a particular question; and that iii. both the brain-storming part and the tutorial question part of the tutorial class makes it impossible for shy or unprepared students to hide, since all students are put on the spot in turn.

The theory behind these teaching formats is the following. In these teaching formats I have tried to combine both the 'Constructivist' approach, which is defended by Biggs and Moore (1993),[3] and the 'Situated Learning' approach, which is defended by Lave and Wenger (1991).[4] That is to say, that these formats have a small 'Constructivist' element because students are invited to revisit, rethink, and re-evaluate their understanding of some philosophical issues, e.g. the nature of morality, this is mainly done through the reading of texts in preparation for the tutorials, as well as through the brain-storming section where I ask students for definitions, check if they have understood key concepts, see if students can see the strengths and weaknesses of certain philosophical views, and foment their relational thinking by demonstrating the relation between different philosophical areas and theories. But it also has a large 'Situated Learning' element because there is a high emphasis on students engaging with their peers so that they share their experiences and views on philosophical issues — this is done both through student presentations and buzz groups, as well as through student discussion, which is guided by myself so that they do not stray away from the topic, during the tutorial question part of the tutorial class. Noteworthy here is that the classic format for tutorial is highly constructivist as it is focused on the reading of a text and the guidance of an 'expert', a tutor, in guiding the tutees through the text — of course, I am describing the classic format in an ideal situation here, but, as I have noted above, this does not happen all the time due to poor teaching strategy, and lack of student participation and preparation.

Above I have said that these tutorial formats were devised so that tutorial classes were more dynamic and thus interesting to students. This fact, I understand, would improve student participation and preparation for tutorials. After a whole term, I consider these tutorial formats to be highly successful, and I intend to carry on with them. I have now distributed anonymous questionnaires where I have enquired among other things if, comparing to other tutorial classes for other subjects, students: i. are more likely to speak in my tutorial classes; ii. are more likely to read in my tutorial classes. I have also enquired in the said questionnaire if students found that i. the tutorial classes were useful and helped clarify their doubts, and ii. how students found the discussion level. The results of the questionnaire is as follows:

i. 90 per cent of students found the tutorial classes useful or very useful in clarifying their doubts. 10 per cent of students found tutorial of some use in clarifying their doubts. No student found tutorials not useful at all.

ii. 84 per cent of students found the discussion level good or excellent. 16 per cent of students found that the discussion level was average. No student found the discussion level poor.

iii. 51 per cent of students answered that they were more likely to speak on my tutorials comparing to other tutorials. 42 per cent answered that they spoke the same in my tutorials as they did in others. 7 per cent said that they were less likely to speak in my tutorials than in others.

iv. 18 per cent of students said they were more likely to read for my tutorials than others. 69 per cent said that they read the same for all their tutorial classes. 13 per cent said that they were less likely to read for my tutorials.

Hence, the vast majority have both asserted that they are more likely to participate in discussions in my tutorials rather than tutorial classes for other subjects as well as finding it useful in clarifying their doubts. I, thus, consider that these tutorial formats have fulfilled partly their goal in improving student motivation and learning. It must be noted here too that s small number of students (18 per cent) asserted that they were more likely to read to my tutorial classes comparing to other tutorial classes for other subjects; the vast majority asserted that they read about the same for all their subjects, and that another small number of students (13 per cent) answered that they were less likely to read for my tutorial classes. Thus, the goal of improving student's preparation for tutorial has been partly fulfilled, as some 18 per cent were more likely to read. Sure, I must address the 13 per cent of students who were less likely to read, and through talking with some students I found out that they started to rely of presentations too much; I have now re-emphasised that reading is essential and that they must read at least one article a week — there is no excuse for not doing so, and that it does show up on their essays the amount of reading they have done (i.e. the more they read the more content they have to draw from, and vice versa). I hope this will revert the negative figure in this issue. Overall I found these tutorial formats very successful, and from the outcome of the questionnaire, students also seem to find it highly successful, I quote three students:

Student 1: "Alexandre somehow manages to have a very lively tutorial session, the one I look forward to the most".

Student 2: "Ethics tutorials are perfect — better than the average history tutorial".

Student 3: "Think tutorials are fantastic so far, excellent debate and discussion".

I have also identified some issues concerning these tutorial formats. The first issue is that two student presentations are to be preferred over one student presentation, and this is so for two reasons; the first reason is that with two presentations you often get two completely different views about the same issue, and this makes things more interesting for discussion; the second reason is that with one student presentation some students tend to go well over their five to ten allocated minutes and this is detrimental to the other parts, i.e. brain-storming and tutorial question, of the tutorial class — with this in mind I intend to change all one presentation formats to two presentations. The second issue is that buzz groups work extremely well if you have a well motivated and consistent group, i.e. a group in which all or most students come very prepared to tutorial classes, whilst the student presentation formats work better in a tutorial group where often some students come unprepared to the tutorial class — with this in mind I intend to change the format of one of my tutorial groups from buzz group to two student presentation, as some of them often come unprepared, and I find that detrimental to discussion. The last issue has been brought to my attention through the questionnaire; a few students have said that they like the handouts from the presentations. And as some students did handouts, and others did not, I have now made it obligatory for all presentations to have a handout accompanying it; also, handouts must suggest at least three texts or books on the topic of the presentation, so that if someone wants to find out more about the topic, they can go to those suggested works.

Concluding. At the beginning of this paper I emphasised that I wanted to improve student participation and preparation for tutorial classes so that student learning was improved — from my perspective this was satisfactorily achieved, and from the student's perspective this seems to be the case also, according to the questionnaire. I have also mentioned that the tutorial formats I designed have a very high element of situated learning, in contrast with the classic format for tutorials, which are highly based on a constructivist approach to student learning. My experience as a tutor and the anonymous questionnaire answered by students seem to suggest that the situated learning approach to student learning is a very attractive tool in the teaching of philosophy in small group tutorials, and as such I intend to pursue this route on my teaching.


Footnotes

1. Katherine Hawley, "Project Report: Using Independent Study Groups with Philosophy Students", in ~The PRS-LTSN Journal, Vol.2, No. 1, Summer 2002, p.90.

2. Sandra Griffiths, "Teaching and Learning in Small Groups", in A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, H Fry, S Ketteridge, and S Marshall, eds., London and Sterling VA, Kogan Page Ltd, 1999, p. 91

3. J Biggs and P Moore, The Process of Learning, New York: Prentice Hall, 1993.

4. J Lave and E Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.


Bibliography

Biggs, J., and Moore, P., The Process of Learning, New York: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Griffiths, Sandra., "Teaching and Learning in Small Groups", in A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, H Fry, S Ketteridge, and S Marshall, eds., London and Sterling VA, Kogan Page Ltd, 1999.

Hawley, Katherine., "Project Report: Using Independent Study Groups with Philosophy Students", in The PRS-LTSN Journal, Vol.2, No. 1, Summer 2002.

Lave, J., and Wenger, E., Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991

© Alexandre Guilherme 2004

Department of Philosophy
University of Durham
50—51 Old Elvet
Durham, Co Durham UK

E-mail: alexandre.guilherme@dur.ac.uk