The Workshop Tutorial Project.
Students discussing a problem with Dr Krystyna Wilk during a workshop tutorial

The School of Physics is part of a collaborative CUTSD funded project to develop Workshop Tutorials for first year physics students. The collaboration includes the University of Sydney, where the tutorials originated, University of Western Sydney, the Australian Catholic University and University of Technology Sydney. The project members at UNSW are Dr Kate Wilson and A/Prof Richard Newbury.

The aim of the project is to produce a set of tutorial worksheets and resources for hands-on activities that could be used with any first year physics course. The tutorial worksheets are being designed in two levels – an introductory level suitable for students in introductory courses with little or no physics background and a “regular” level for physics majors and other students with a good high school physics background. In addition, the regular level sheets come in two “flavours” – biological/environmental and technological/applied. A total of over 140 tutorials will be included in the final book.

The workshop tutorials have been trialled successfully at UNSW with optometry students in session 1, and with building and industrial design students in session 2, 2001. The workshops will be included in a greater number of courses in 2002. The workshops are easy to insert into existing courses, and require very little additional resources to standard tutorials.

The advantage of the workshop tutorials over traditional tutorials is that they actively engage the students. In a traditional tutorial many students do little more than sit and copy what the tutor writes on the board. This a very passive activity, and students learn very little from these tutorials – to learn to solve problems, they must solve problems themselves. Teaching something is not the same as the students learning it.

In the workshop tutorials the students work in small cooperative groups to solve problems. They discuss the problem, argue with each other, and eventually come to a consensus. By explaining their own understanding of the problem and the relevant physics they clarify it for themselves. This is of great value to the weaker students in the group, who get an explanation from a peer in language that they can understand. It is of even greater value to the student doing the explaining – the best way to learn something is to teach it. This encourages deep learning, with the students being forced to grapple with concepts, rather than rote learning a set of examples which they can repeat on the exam.

The workshops also include simple hands-on activities, with a question or two associated with each activity. This has two advantages – the students are given a concrete, often “real world” example of the physics they are learning, and it breaks up the tutorial somewhat, without having students lose focus on the physics. And of course, the students can learn by doing.

Evaluation of the workshop tutorials has shown that students benefit from the group work in the tutorials, with students commenting that being forced to explain something made them realise that they didn’t actually understand it. They also appreciated the opportunity to hear a range of explanations from group members. Students also singled out the hands-on activities as helping them to understand the physics being taught. In addition to encouraging learning, students enjoy the workshops – as one optometry student wrote on the evaluation paper “More of these please!”

Kate Wilson

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