History Department Response to Student Feedback
HSTY1043 - Modern European Politics and Culture (2004)
Unit Coordinator: Dr Chris Hilliard
History 1043 was the first course I taught at the University of Sydney, and while teaching the biggest course in the department was a challenge, it was also exciting and stimulating. I’m glad I’m teaching the course again in 2005. Two hundred and twenty-nine students completed the unit-of-study survey. Eighty-five percent declared themselves satisfied with the course; 12% were neutral and 3% dissatisfied. Students were kind with their praise and specific with their criticisms: I appreciate both a lot. A lot of students took the trouble to make general comments on important subjects that the Arts Faculty’s questionnaires don’t ask about the quality of the lectures, for instance. Many students made a point of saying that they found the lectures interesting and useful. I was pleased that no one said that the lectures were either too simplistic or too complex. A large number of students praised the commitment and energy of their tutors.
I will resist the temptation to say any more about the positive feedback in the survey; below are the main criticisms students had of the course, and the steps I plan on taking to remedy them for 2005.
Assignments and Feedback
By far the biggest complaint in the completed surveys was that students didn’t get feedback on their work until too late in the semester and the first assignment was the major essay, which was worth a substantial proportion of the final mark. Students were also unhappy that they didn’t get their marked essays back until the second-to-last week of term. I think that these complaints are fully justified: students need opportunities to get feedback on their written work early in the course, and they need to have their major piece of coursework marked well before the exam period so that they can digest the criticisms and learn from them. To make sure this happens, I intend to make two changes to the course assessment when I next teach it. Firstly, I will set a short and relatively low-stakes assignment (worth, say, 10% of the unit’s overall mark) early on in the semester in order to give students some feedback on their work. Secondly, I’ll bring the due date of the major essay forward so that we can give back the marked essays sooner. Marking length essays for a course with 400 students takes a lot of time. Each of the tutors marks some of the essays, and the unit coordinator then reads a sample of each tutor’s essays along with essays on the borderline between grades, to make sure that the assessment is consistent across tutors. Making the due date earlier in the semester is the only way we can get them back earlier.
Forty-eight percent of the students surveyed disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement ‘The workload in this unit of study was too high’. Thirty-eight percent were neutral, and 14% definitely thought the workload was excessive. This course actually had a lower workload than other first-year courses. There was no tutorial essay, and the reading load in 2004 was about two-thirds of what it had been in 2002 and 2003. (I trimmed the reading requirement because I’d rather students read two articles in depth than skim three of them.) I don’t think that the reading load for a university history course can be cut down further. Students also commented that the 50% weighting attached to the major essay made it daunting. I agree that this is too much and will change it, adding (as I say above) a short assignment early in the semester, so that there isn’t so much riding on the major essay and so that students have had some more practice writing and being marked.
A lot of students remarked that the course covered too large a span of time, which made the course especially demanding. This surprised me, since 1043 as it has been taught in recent years covers only thirty years, and is out of step with its first-semester companion course, which covers over 150 years. The modern European history staff resolved last year that in future 1043 would cover a longer period, starting earlier and finishing later. It’s not just a matter of evening up 1043 and 1045: the subjects that 1043 deals can be explored in a more satisfying way if they are set in a longer-term context. This is a decision we’ll have to argue our case for in the lectures in 2005.