History Department Response to Student Feedback
HSTY2607 - Approaches to the Arab-Israeli Conflict (2006)
Unit Coordinator: Dr Dirk Moses
This was the first time HSTY 2607 was offered. It received a large enrolment for a senior unit: 257 students. A feature of the unit was the collaboration between three departments in the Faculty of Arts: the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies; the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies; and the Department of History. Concretely, this meant that Associate Professors Ahmad Shboul and Suzanne Rutland gave most of the lectures, while I, the coordinator, held most of the tutorials with Martin Braach-Maksyvitis, expediting the unit administration as well.
For us, the cooperation of the teaching staff was a gesture of intellectual hope in a seemingly intractable conflict in which communication across party lines sometimes seems impossible.
The students appreciated this gesture, most of them commenting that the representation of all perspectives was most welcome. Typical responses were these: ‘Interesting and engaging lectures with different viewpoints encouraged individual weighing up of both sides’; ‘Having three lecturers all operating from different perspectives yet working together gave a comprehensive view of the issues at stake. Also allowed me to draw my own – informed – conclusions’.
For all that, we stressed that none of the lectures purported to represent an extra-university community. And we challenged the notion of a single ‘Jewish’ or ‘Palestinian’ or ‘Arab’ point of view.
Students praised the fairness and balance of the lectures, being open to change their own points of view. As I wrote in the unit outline, ‘We are engaged in mutual explorations of issues rather than automatically entreating or defending points of view we have formed outside the classroom. Learning entails not expecting to see our own views reflected in everything we hear and read’. With a handful of exceptions, students met the challenge: ‘It has encouraged me to think critically and re-evaluate the opinions promoted by the media’.‘ My perspective on the conflict has changed due to the readings and the knowledge of the lectures’.
Without doubt, this unit was a successful experiment, with 85% of students being either satisfied or strongly satisfied with it (12% were neutral, and only 2% dissatisfied). Here is a sample of their comments:
- 'The is the best history unit I have undertaken so far. The approach was different and the lectures were great. For the first time I wasn’t about to fall asleep during the lectures. Great lectures'.
- 'Thank you for a most interesting and stimulating semester – it’s one of the best courses I’ve done'.
- 'Generally, I found this unit extremely valuable and well-taught'.
- 'Fantastic course. Hugely informative and enjoyable. Should be compulsory for all students in the present political and international climate. Thank you'.
'One of the best subjects I have taken in history so far'.
- 'The best history unit I have done in my three years here. Lectures, tutorials, the teaching – all were fabulous, engaging, and thought-provoking. Surprisingly balanced, too'.
- 'Really enjoyed this unit. Best ever subject I’ve taken in the whole four years at uni. Thank you Dirk, especially for making tutes so interesting, relevant, and humorous!'.
- 'This unit has been the most enjoyable and constructive history that I have undertaken at the University of Sydney'.
- 'I found the unit was the most difficult subject to find a solution but the lecturers, tutor and readings were top class. I think they helped my understanding and gave me the desire to follow the subject as it progresses'.
- 'Students felt they were forced to look at both sides'.
This positive result was also reflected in written comments to specific questions on the official survey. I shall reprise them, as well as student suggestions, in turn.
Students were happy with the unit outline, which included an extensive essay guide of my own devising. Of it, one student wrote ‘I did enjoy the pointers in the handout. Unfortunately, I can already write a good essay, but I would have killed for those pointers in first year’. Another wrote: ‘It was good having the very clear, detailed Unit Outline (even if half the students didn’t read it)’. Indeed, I insisted on high standards in essay writing. Some students responded to the challenge: ‘Dirk Moses taught us how to write an actual essay, which was amazing, go Dirk!’; ‘Dirk was especially insistent on good research, which encouraged me to do so’.
Students generally liked the lectures. ‘The lecturers were great and made the content interesting and enjoyable to learn. They were also easy to approach and understanding. Ahmad Shboul is so funny’; ‘The teaching quality was exceptional’.
A feature of the unit was a series of film I screened on Wednesday afternoons. Although their viewing was not compulsory, about 10% of the students came regularly. They were very positive about the films, which were chosen by myself and A/Professors Rutland and Shboul. ‘I cannot stress enough how much the films helped to broaden by understanding’, wrote on student. Others commented of the films, too. ‘Generally, reading very engaging, lectures interesting, and the film screenings an excellent addition’; ‘LOVED THE DOCUMENTARIES! Every course should have them.’
Students appreciated that studying this conflict would require them to stretch their cognitive and imaginative capacities. The material would be confronting. Here is a small sample of their comments:
- 'Putting together political history with more human based narratives was challenging’; ‘The nature of the information was always challenging but was presented in ways that promoted reflection'.
- 'Allowed me to develop greater research skills but also taught me how to distance myself from the emotional perspective and focus on academic research'.
- 'The standard was very high, and I was pushed to exceed what I had previously done. I will take what I have learned to other courses – it is burned into my soul :)'.
On the whole, students found the workload fair: 48% disagreed with the proposition that it was too high, while 20% thought it was (12% were neutral). A typical comment was 'challenging without being overwhelming'. Still, many students found the amount of tutorial reading excessive. We set two journal articles (or equivalent) each week, the usual load for a senior unit. There was, too, an imperative to set two articles so we could have represent different perspectives. Some weeks had explicit exchanges between thinkers. Students realized this: 'The readings, while copious, were balanced, in examples from both perspectives and led to an increased understanding of the subject in all its complexity'. It is difficult to see how we could reduce the reading without compromising the pedagogical integrity of the unit. And yet, it is clear that students struggled to read thoroughly for four units each week in the new six credit point regime. The workload issue needs to be addressed by the Faculty as the whole.
Although the unit had a specific focus, students appreciated its relevance to events beyond the classroom: 'I found this course was one of the first that I've done which has interest merits outside the walls of the university'; 'I've actually found this course really inspiring. It has prompted me to learn more about the region, and now I can potentially contribute to further research and discussion'.
Students noted the dedication of the teaching staff, commenting effusively about the feedback they received, particularly on the short essay. Here is a sample of comments:
- 'I have never quite experienced this level of responsiveness before. Dirk seems permanently connected to the net, even on the other side of the world! V. dedicated staff'.
- 'The feedback on the first essay helped me considerably in the second essay'.
- 'I found staff very responsive and helpful in their commentary and approaches'.
- 'Essay comments were very extensive and helpful, being strict on essay format and grammar should be a feature of every university course'.
- 'In tutorials, Dr. Moses always asked how the course could be improved'.
'Emails are always replied to immediately. I appreciate that'.
- 'Dirk made a substantial effort to accommodate students with problems such as the unavailability of texts'.
- 'Dirk Moses, need I say more! Scary but constructive feedback!'
A number of students indicated that they wanted feedback on their tutorial presentations.
- 'Dirk’s recap of the essay and mistakes made in tutorials and lectures helped me to extend on my skills'.
'Dirk was always looking for student feedback'.
- 'Short essay feedback was very, very useful for preparing the long essay'.
There was less unanimity about the tutorials. While about half the students commented enthusiastically about their group discussions (‘Tutes were good. Face to face was one of the reasons I chose this course over the Govt one’; ‘The tutorials were the best – the most stimulating I’ve had in 4 years of Arts! Thanks Dirk’), the other half were equally unenthusiastic, if not vehemently critical of them. To some extent, this divergence reflects the variety of tutorial situations – there were 13 tutorial groups and four tutors. For all that, the inevitable variability and distribution of student and staff personalities across tutorials cannot entirely account for the perceived problems. It is true that some tutorials were too big – over 20 students, although this problem was partly of the students’ making, as many of them declined to join smaller tutorials that did not meet at an agreeable time for them (I do not mean timetable clashes). Moreover, if two or three students dominated discussion, as some students complained (‘Class discussion should have been all-inclusive, rather than limited to a few people’), the best remedy is for other students to chime in. What is more, a tutor cannot easily generate a discussion when confronted by the willful silence of all but the usual suspects. Indeed, the vocal students expressed their frustration that others did not contribute, usually because they were unprepared. As it happens, these students were correct that many quiet students often had not done the reading. I discovered this as well when I asked them direct questions about the reading. We must also realize that some students are shy (they said so in their written comments). In the unit outline, I write ‘Those who are shy or otherwise inhibited are encouraged to speak to me outside of class so that we can together devise ways of increasing your comfort level’. Unfortunately, of the 100 or so students in my tutorials, only two approached me about their reticence, partly, I think, because they do not read the very lengthy unit outlines in which such advice is contained.
Some students wished that powerpoint notes of the lectures were available on WebCT before the lecture so they can listen more attentively during the lecture. That may be possible when we offer the unit again.
Students liked and disliked the textbook in equal numbers. Many did not read it at all. While dry and at time dense, we found the book very comprehensive, evenhanded, and replete with useful maps and diagrams. There is a new edition of the book that we will examine, as well as considering alternative textbooks.
Some students wanted more guidance about expectations for the tutorial presentation and the short essay. We can do this. Many students want to discard the tutorial presentation altogether. I shall discuss this option with my colleagues. I believe that making concise oral presentations is an important element of university training. Because they are not done well is no reason to drop them. It is a challenge to guide the students better.
Some students welcome the wide range of essay questions (‘Variety of essay questions allowed me to focus on what interested me and as a result I was able to express my knowledge, thoughts, and opinions’) – 27 in total – but others experienced the choice as agonizing. Others thought some of them too broad. Upon reflection, I agree with them, and we will change some of the questions for the next installment of this unit.
In terms of the assessment structure, students varied in their views of the split between the essays, the exam, and tutorial participation. Some thought the essays were undervalued and the tutorial participation (20%) overvalued. The latter choice was an experiment to see whether it would encourage more tutorial discussion. It did not. In fact, some students felt intimidated. Knowing that their oral performance counted for a fifth of their mark, they became mute. I will likely reduce the exam from 35% to 25% of the total mark, reduce tutorial participation to 10%, and increase essays to 65% (short and long essay).
Some students wished for longer word limits on the essays in view of the high research expectations. I agree that the essays are too short, but we are restricted by Faculty rules. If we want to keep the exam, as I think we should, the essays will remain limited in length. It is to the credit of students that they wish to write longer pieces of research.
We set the short essay deadline early in the semester (week 5). Some students would have preferred a slightly later date so they would be more comfortable with the material. I intend the keep the current date. We need about 2-3 weeks to mark some 260 essays, and then leave time for students to write the long essay. Moreover, the early deadline also means students are taken out of their comfort zone a little. That is the point of education, after all. With more guidance about our expectations in the unit outline, students will find the short essay less intimidating.
Students varied in their view of the deadlines for the long essay. Some welcomed the late submission date (week 12), accepting that this meant it was impossible to return them before the exam. Others would have preferred an earlier submission date so we could provide feedback before the exam. We will consider our options here, as there is no clear student view. Making the essay due earlier will mean students have less time to work on it. After all, even if the essay is due in Week 12, they are welcome to submit it earlier if they wish.
Some students welcomed the fact that there was no suggested reading list for each essay question. ‘Great assessment. I am really glad that they didn’t have a recommended reading list’. They were thereby compelled to conduct their own – much more original – research.
I wish to thank the library staff, particularly Rena McGrogan and Karen Chilcott, for their help in securing books and articles for this unit.
12 January 2007.