What do you get if you cross a lecture and a tute?

Lectorials are the new learning format hitting our classrooms. But are they working?

Lectorials are the latest craze taking USyd by storm. Referred to as the ‘flipped classroom’ approach to teaching, this lecture-tutorial hybrid method seeks to build higher levels of student participation, interest and, ultimately, achievement, by subverting the traditional classroom model.

Lectorials were first used by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in 2010 to improve student outcomes in STEM subjects. A typical lectorial would begin with a lecturer providing an introduction to new concepts, before students are directed to break off into groups and apply this knowledge in problem solving activities.

The RMIT website touts that by combining the content delivery mode of a lecture with the collaborative group-work of a tutorial, lectorials “improve opportunities for student engagement in large classes”, offering “the best of both worlds!” But when this model is exported to other disciplines such as arts and social sciences, where learning is perhaps more oriented towards research and critical discussion, its ability to provide effective outcomes is thrown into question.

Dirk Moses, professor of modern history at USyd, conducted an experiment on this very question in 2017. He took international studies unit INGS1002 and delivered a two hour-long lectorial to 274 students in ABS Lecture Theatre 1110. Predictably, he immediately encountered challenges regarding space and scale; namely, how to emulate the intimacy and structure of a tutorial in a lecture theatre designed to house entire cohorts.

Student feedback acknowledged the rationale behind lectorials but highlighted several flaws in their implementation. Recurring issues in the feedback were the tendency for discussion pods to deteriorate into unproductive social conversations in the absence of explicit academic direction; discussions in lectures were often reduced to recycled insights and mere opinion-spruiking, and the potential to deter participation by introverted students or those experiencing language difficulties.

Despite these criticisms, in an end-of-semester survey designed by Moses, a slim majority of 55 per cent of students strongly agreed or agreed that they preferred lectorials to traditional lectures, compared to 31 per cent who disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Moses remains positive about the role of lectorials in FASS, and continued refining the format through semester 1 and 2 of this year in INGS1003 and INGS1004. In light of last year’s feedback, improvements were made to the program: smaller teaching spaces were used to isolate breakout groups, additional teaching staff were on hand to provide support to these pods, and the number of students in any one lectorial was reduced to 147.

“Scale matters,” says Moses, who recognises that the main hurdle he encountered was the struggle to “break [large cohort-wide lectures] down into smaller face-to-face communities”. He stresses the need for the diversity to provide adequate teaching spaces and resources to support a turn towards interactive learning.

Student feedback reveals that much of the success of this teaching format relies on students taking the initiative to come to class, having done their readings, prepared to share, defend and develop their insights. Not doing so results in a “bland discussion” that does little to give students their money’s worth. Lectorials may be better suited to senior units where students possess the motivation and critical capacity to sustain primarily peer-led discussion But even there, success hinges largely on classes where students feel comfortable sharing personal views and criticisms.

If lectorials are ever to become a feasible universal model, decisions must be made about how to tailor them to each faculty. Direct exportation of the lectorial teaching model, without incorporating necessary changes, has been met with strong dissatisfaction from a large number of students who don’t feel as though their academic needs are being met. For all the “Unlearn: classroom” posters plastered across Eastern Avenue, the University needs to support pedagogical shifts like lectorials through genuine action.

As one student survey response put it, “collaborative learning en masse can quickly turn into a muddle of mixed opinions”. So the question remains—can we ever wade through this muddle, towards true educational reform?