Where and when was the study carried out?
I teach an Open University second level Arts course on the Homeric epics. Students explore the two texts from several angles - oral poetry, war poetry, and the archaeological context of the Homeric period. They come into the course from a range of backgrounds. Some have been fired by archaeological programmes on the TV or visits to ancient sites in Greece to find out more about early Greek culture; others may be coming in with little or no experience or understanding of archaeology, because they are fascinated by the literature. Learning is primarily through the course material, and the assignments, with only a scatter of tutorials throughout the year. So tutorial contact time is therefore valuable as a scarce commodity, and must be used carefully to match and meet student need as closely as possible.
I have usually run a tutorial at the beginning of their work on the archaeological material, pitching it at the explicit challenge in the course text - to explore the differences between the disciplines of history, literature and archaeology, and what each can validly contribute to the others and to our understanding of the poems and the world in which they were created.
I had introduced the habit of ending each tutorial with a concept map exercise from the start, and ended this tutorial similarly. Because of the scarcity of tutorials, I had had to make the first occasion an experiment, which they would have to find immediately useful and convincing if we were not to drop the idea for future sessions.
How many staff and students were involved?
This evaluation just involved myself, as tutor, and the 13 students who attended the class, and took about 15 mins at the end of the tutorial.
What were the aims and objectives of the evaluation?
To gain insight into cognitive aspects of the tutorial session; had the students understood the conceptually difficult differences in academic discipline and methodology here? Where there areas which they found more difficult than others, and would need further work? Did the approach I had adopted sit well with the way in which they were working with the texts and the course materials?
What did I find out?
That a significant number of the students had not even got near engaging with the conceptual focus of the session, because they were ignorant of the basics of archaeological methodology. They had not really understood the course material on the subject and were still struggling with concepts such as stratification, dating techniques and so on. This had not been apparent from discussion in class, because there were a few archaeological enthusiasts who had led either led the discussion or contributed helpfully and so on. The rest, from the feedback, had grasped what they were saying superficially, but, given their unease with the more basic material, could not engage with the ideas on their own and could not apply what knowledge they had.
What are my reflections on this study?
The concept maps are a technique which is easily operated even within the strict time limits of an Open University tutorial on a 30 point course. I gained a valuable insight into the extent of students’ understanding and the coverage of learning in the tutorial, which I could not have gained from observation of behaviour; and also, importantly, into the reason for shortcomings in understanding and progress. On the basis of that insight, I could simply do a little remedial work with this year’s students to bridge this gap, and redesign the tutorial for the next year’s group to start with some diagnostic work to identify the extent of those particular students’ understanding of archaeology, thus being able to start work at a point appropriate for them.
The students explicitly welcomed this addition to the tutorial programme. In practice, they found it an invaluable period of “time out” to reflect on what they had covered, to consolidate, and to identify gaps which could be filled quickly, or more major problems which we could then plan together to address.
Both the students and I found that this put the design of the tutorial on our joint agenda. They saw that a tutorial didn’t just happen - it was carefully thought out to meet their needs, and it could do that better if they thought more about what those needs were and told me of them. They also gained confidence in my genuine wish to help them, and in the better progress which they could make if we talked together about the process of learning, as well as its content.
Judith George .