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Strategies for fostering independent learning through small group MA Art History seminars

Abstract: This case study presents a description and evaluation of a teaching exercise concerning a class of six International MA Art History students, from the Spring term of 2009. It addresses both their difficulties with the transition from dependent to independent learning and my difficulties as a new teacher attempting to encourage that process. Teaching activities run during the seminars reveal underlying issues about different expectations over my role as a teacher and their role as postgraduate students in the classroom, with subsequent strategies employed during the following academic year on a new group of MA students.

Keywords: Art History, Masters, Independent learning, Teaching Strategies

Author information: Dr Tania Woloshyn was Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Art History at Richmond, the International American University in London

Date: October 2010

Download PDF: Strategies for fostering independent learning through small group MA Art History seminars 

Context or Rationale:

I began as an Adjunct Assistant Professor (part-time Lecturer) on the MA Art History programme at Richmond, the International American University in London, in September 2008, having finished my PhD earlier that Spring. During my first term at Richmond (September-December 2008), I ran a Masters module, ‘Colonialism, Orientalism, Primitivism,’ focused on student-centred seminar discussions. At the end of the module, the students (the majority of whom were American) were given the opportunity to offer feedback, and they reported that they were unsatisfied with my teaching style, feeling that I did not direct, inform and lecture enough. Come the Spring term (February-May 2009), I had been asked by my superior to incorporate lectures into my next module, ‘Nineteenth-Century Modernisms,’ in response to students expressing their frustration and anxiety.  Though the class format is advertised as a seminar in the student handbook, I found myself in a situation where I needed to include different teaching formats within a weekly session of just under three hours. Balancing these two formats challenged me as a new teacher, because I wished to facilitate group discussion amongst the students rather than dominate classroom time with my own voice.

During the Spring term, I researched and employed methods and tasks to find balance within the sessions – between my time ‘lecturing’ to them and their time for questions, discussion amongst the group, and critical analysis of the set readings. I present here then a case study of a small group of six MA students, international and American, which formed the basis of an assessed project I successfully undertook to qualify as an Associate Teacher with the Higher Education Academy.

Description of Activity:

I had specifically included student-led seminars as part of the assessment, to encourage their participation, give them responsibility for their own learning, and gain experience in leading discussions, as confirmed and discussed by Ashcroft and Foreman-Peck (1994, p.84).  But these presentations only accounted for three of eleven in-class sessions, isolated events within the whole module.

In the beginning sessions, I chose to build up slowly, experimenting with different organisations to the session, observing how the students responded to certain activities, altering seating arrangements and furniture (Cockburn and Ross, 1978a, p.4), noting aspects of their behaviour, etc. Variety was key for me, having read from Gibbs and the Habeshaws that, ‘The benefit to the students is that the variety of approaches can at least sustain, and at best enhance, the students’ interest and motivation’ (Gibbs and Habeshaw, 1989, p.76). The entire series by Gibbs and the Habeshaws were particularly helpful with ideas on small-group activities such as pair work, pyramids, and brainstorming.

Additionally, Rudduck’s book, Learning Through Small Group Discussion, made me realise that there are many types of seminars (1978, p.124) and I began to understand that there were multiple ways to organise the session. Trying out different activities each session seemed a great way to let the students know I was open to and excited about experimental teaching. Certainly they were already familiar with my informal and friendly way of teaching; I had positioned myself all along as a ‘guide,’ warm and often comical.

I was sure to include a mini-lecture in every session I ran (Gibbs, Habeshaw and Habeshaw, 1992, pp.93-94); that is, including organising a thirty-minute talk within the first half of each session. Doing so was part of the variety. But so too were the tasks designed to generate discussion in a more seminar-like format. Cockburn and Ross (1978b, p.2) were influential in this regard, since they consider discussion as a means to ‘correct the balance’ for teachers who tend to dominate sessions by doing all the talking.

These lead-up experimentations were practice for the ‘big day’: the actual Teaching Activity was run on 30 March 2009, during which I was peer observed by my superior, the director of the MA Programme. His role was non-participatory, and his observations noted on a formal peer observation report used by the university.

The session began with a brainstorming activity to involve the whole group (suggested by many, such as Habeshaw, Habeshaw and Gibbs, 1988, p.73). Students were asked to call out ideas relating to the session’s topics, in an informal manner, which I wrote with markers on the main board. I then proceeded to deliver a thirty-minute mini-lecture, using notes and images on a Power-Point presentation. Following the mini-lecture, I asked the students to spend about twenty-five minutes independently noting main points from each of the three set readings and weekly session topics. I gave them small note-cards for this purpose, so that they could spread the cards out in front of them, making it easier for them to reference later on during a role-playing exercise.  The reason for this ‘quiet time’ was pivotal to my mind:

It is frequently assumed that a discussion session should consist of continuous talk and that working alone is for private study time. Yet giving students – and yourself – the chance to think alone, read alone, tackle a problem alone, etc. can be very valuable for short periods at various stages during a tutorial ... (Habeshaw, Habeshaw and Gibbs, 1988, p.85).

Indeed, the ‘quiet time’ was actually deliberately included to form the beginning of the Pyramid or ‘Snowball’ method. First they were to work alone, then given defined roles to have a discussion as a group of six. Though I did not follow the method exactly, I hoped the independent time would help them transition into the group activity.

After the period of working on their own, they were given a break of fifteen minutes, as is customary during our long weekly sessions. I also hoped the break would refresh them for their role-playing task. I assigned each of them a very specific role either suited to their individual personality or designed to restrict/divert their normal behaviour in the group:

Student roles:

Monitor (‘Time-Keeper’)

Initiator (‘Chairperson’ or ‘Gate-Keeper’)

Devil’s Advocate (‘Critic’)

Probe (‘Counsellor’ or ‘Interpreter’)

Link (‘Co-ordinator’ or ‘Facilitator’)


My role:

Secretary (‘Note-taker’)

For example, one of the students was an extrovert who often dominated discussions, so I strategically assigned to her the role of a ‘Summariser,’ to challenge her to listen carefully to the others (Cockburn and Ross, 1978b, p.27). Above all, every student was given a unique role that involved active participation in the discussion in some form or another. I was inspired to do this main role-playing activity, which occupied the entire last half of the session, by Cockburn and Ross (1978b, p.27; 1978a, pp.30-32) as well as Gibbs and the Habeshaws (1988, pp.83-84), including the role names and descriptions (Fig.1). The latter have explained that role-playing group tasks are an effective way for the students to take more responsibility for their own learning: ‘One way of encouraging students to take more responsibility for the group without overburdening them is to identify the tasks involved in running a discussion group and assign them to individuals’ (Habeshaw, Habeshaw and Gibbs, 1988, p.83). My own role was therefore that of a secretary or ‘Note-taker,’ and did not involve participating except to change slides when asked to do so. My peer observer remained in his position. It was important to me that both I and my superior did not participate in the discussion, following the recommendation of Cockburn and Ross (1978b, p.8) of ‘…refraining from correcting what the students say, from re-phrasing, interpreting and making all the connections of their behalf.’

I attempted to be as clear as possible in explaining each role, with details, examples, and then a final analogy. The role-playing activity took a little over an hour, and the entire session concluded with the distribution of individual student questionnaire:

Student feedback sheet
  • Would you rate this seminar (please circle):
Successful / Fairly successful / Unsuccessful 
  • Compared with other seminars within this particular module, would you say that this seminar was:
Excellent / Above average / Average / Below average / Poor 
  • Can you give reasons for these estimations?
  • Were there, in your view, any extrinsic factors affecting the conduct and success of this seminar (e.g. – absence of key members of the group, were you feeling on form, did the environment help/hinder you etc.)? 
  • Which were the most productive events or periods in this seminar? Which were the least productive? Please try to give some detail – and perhaps explain.  
  • What, in your view, would have improved this particular seminar?

(Anonymous student feedback questionnaire for Teaching Activity, adapted from J. Rudduck, 1978, p.81.)

I liked Rudduck’s sample questionnaire because it included open-ended questions (encouraged by Gibbs and Habeshaw, 1992, p.95) as well as fixed answers on a scale of satisfaction (see Fig.2). While they filled these out, I left the classroom, as did my peer observer.


Looking at the anonymous student feedback forms from the session, I was shocked by the negative reaction and comments generated. During the role-playing activity, I myself was satisfied with the students’ discussion; though certainly not all the students followed their roles exactly, and some participated less than others (the naturally introverted students), overall I felt that they had done a good job working together. But the student feedback forms were tremendously revealing for me. Negative comments focused on the role-playing activity, and almost every student described the process as ineffective due to lack of teacher involvement and ‘appropriate’ direction. I was particularly struck by Form 4, which stated under Question 3:

Sometimes without the involvement of a lecturer/leader it is like the blind leading the blind. Minimal involvement I can respect but ZERO involvement leads to uninspiring discussions. Would have like a conclusion from you – the educated one.

Analysing the comment rationally, I realised that the students had not recognised the level of involvement and clear direction I had given them throughout the session leading up to this activity: the brainstorming activity; the mini-lecture; independent ‘quiet time’ with note-cards; and finally individual sheets with defined roles. Emotionally, I was frustrated and angry that they had reacted so negatively to doing just one hour-long activity, within one session all year, without me talking. My revelation of sorts came when I realised the underlying problem was not, in fact, the melding of lectures into seminars – in other words, the matter of the format of delivery – but rather, that the very reason the students had requested lecturing during seminar sessions at all was because they refused to take responsibility for their own learning. This was only confirmed in my mind when later reading that the request was a classic sign of student dependence (in Rudduck’s book p.73). This issue of dependent versus independent learning greatly occupied my thoughts during the last weeks of the module, and I sought out new sources for guidance. The dichotomy began to colour my view of lectures versus seminars as a whole, so that ‘dependent’ was to ‘lecture’ as ‘independent’ was to ‘seminar’ in my mind.  Indeed, Gibbs and Habeshaw have gone so far as to state that, ‘Lectures are very poor at changing attitudes, inspiring students or inducing positive or professional attitudes towards the subject’ and that, ‘When students favour lectures it is usually because they lack independent learning skills, self-confidence, or any other way of finding out what the course is about’ (both Gibbs and Habeshaw, 1989, p.47).

Honestly, I felt like a failure. How could Masters students be so resistant towards independent learning? And where did the blame fall? I certainly felt responsible, even while gaining comfort from sources that a teacher cannot really force independence onto a student (Cockburn and Ross, 1978a, p.20 and Boud, 1981, p.17); Rudduck additionally states that ‘…responsibility for making a seminar work lies with the group as a whole – not solely with the seminar leader’ (pp.124-125). Only when I managed to find a book specifically addressing the teaching of Masters students did I experience relief. Peter T. Knight’s Masterclass included many references by educators of encountering Masters students on their modules who resisted independent learning. Reports of frustration, rejection, and conflict were, in fact, common-place (p.10).

The more I read, the more I realised this was not exclusive to Knight’s Masterclass (Powell in Boud, 1981, p.207). In a chapter in Boud’s Developing Student Autonomy in Learning, J.P. Powell has remarked that,

The reduction of teacher control as a means of fostering independence involves the creation of a role for the teacher which lies outside the experience of most students. They are thus apt to reject it and exert pressure intended to compel the teacher to behave in a more conventional manner (Powell in Boud, 1981, p.80).

This would also be echoed by Cox and Heames (1999, p.18), Davis (in Knight, 1997, p.35) and even the famous Kolb (1984, p.28). Taking this into consideration, the students’ feedback to the role-play activity were blatantly indicative of a conservative, dependent group. Clearly, in their minds, by not taking full control of the discussions, asking the questions and even answering most of them, was indicative of me ‘not doing my job.’

I was left with the questions, What could I have done differently? And what was my job, exactly, as a professor in the postgraduate classroom? Perhaps I had unwittingly fostered their dependence? After all, I was the one who designed the entire syllabus, the coursework, and planned the sessions. Perhaps I should have given them more say in the module’s planning and implementation (a strategy suggested by Gibbs and Habeshaw, 1989, p.42; Powell in Boud, 1981, p.72; Cockburn, 1978a, pp.18-19).

Above all, I understood that I had not set sufficient ‘Ground Rules’ at the outset, and this may have sorely impeded the students’ learning, confidence during discussion, and move towards independence. As I learned the hard way,

Putting students into circles and telling them to speak to each other rather than to you does not alter the fundamental power dynamics in the classroom. Announcing to students that you’ve decided to use discussion will not in and of itself unleash a hunger for learning and communication (Brookfield and Preskill, 1999, p.29).

Had I established clear ground rules at the beginning of the module, perhaps through a class contract (Gibbs, Habeshaw and Habeshaw, 1992, p.78) and through careful questioning (such as ‘What do you feel that your responsibilities are?’, Rudduck, 1978, p.94), the students would have taken a more active and independent role during discussions. I should have been clearer about my own authority, since switching from ‘lecturer,’ during the mini-lectures, to friendly ‘facilitator’ for the rest of the sessions was difficult in itself. Cockburn and Ross have explained: ‘Authority needs to be defined; a group only works well when everyone knows where they are in relation to the tutor’ (1978a, p.20). Most importantly, I have come to understand, through Brookfield and Preskill’s Discussion as a Way of Teaching, that establishing a good small-group dynamic with critical discussion and independently-motivated students takes time (1999, p.29). It cannot be simply manufactured by a one-off role-playing session.


After last Spring, I decided that in the future I would adapt a model on ‘Ground Rules’ created by Cox and Heames (p.27). During the next academic year (Sept 2009-May 2010), with a fresh group of eleven MA students, I began my first class immediately with the following questions, written on the board, with answers added from the students:

·      What do we mean by ‘seminar’ versus ‘lecture’?

·      What is ‘independent thinking’? And how would you define ‘critical thinking’?

·      What do you hope to achieve by attending these sessions?

·      What do you think your role in class should be?

·      What is acceptable behaviour of other members in the class in terms of participation and attendance?

·      What can you expect of the professor?

This activity took well over an hour to discuss each of these questions to the satisfaction of all, particularly considering possible scenarios when such issues would arise. I found spending the time on this was crucial to my relationship with these new MA students, and we referred to those ground rules several times since that initial discussion. From comments by these students, they too reported that the activity was useful to them in defining expectations and common ground for the running of the modules.

To conclude, how do we, as educators, cultivate independent thinking, individual responsibility to do so, time-management skills, and critical thought? These skills are at the crux of a postgraduate degree. Surely some students will resist that transition from dependent to independent learning, but that is the journey they must experience in order to achieve academic success. Surely it is our job to guide them on that path, but also to learn ourselves along the way.

Further Information:

Ashcroft, K. and Foreman-Peck, L. (1994) Managing Teaching and Learning in Further and Higher Education. London and New York: Routledge-Falmer.

Boud, D. (ed.) (1981) Developing Student Autonomy in Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Brookfield, S.D. and Preskill, S. (1999) Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for University Teachers. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Cockburn, B. and Ross, A. (1978a) Working Together. Teaching in Higher Education Series: 3. Lancaster: School of Education, University of Lancaster.

Cockburn, B. and Ross, A. (1978b) Participatory Discussion. Teaching in Higher Education Series: 4. Lancaster: School of Education, University of Lancaster.

Cox, S. and Heames, R. (1999) Managing the Pressures in Teaching: Practical Ideas for Tutors and Their Students. London: Falmer Press.

Gibbs, G., Habeshaw, S. and Habeshaw, T. (1992) 53 Interesting things to do in your lectures. Bristol: Technical and Educational Services Ltd.

Gibbs, G. and Habeshaw, T. (1992) 253 Ideas for your teaching. Bristol: Technical and Educational Services Ltd.

Gibbs, G. and Habeshaw, T. (1989) Preparing to Teach: An introduction to effective teaching in higher education. Bristol: Technical and Educational Services Ltd.

Gibbs, G., Habeshaw, S. and Habeshaw, T. (1989) 53 Interesting Ways to Appraise Your Teaching. Bristol: Technical and Educational Services Ltd.

Habeshaw, S., Habeshaw, T. and Gibbs, G. (1988) 53 Interesting Things to Do in Your Seminars And Tutorials. Bristol: Technical and Educational Services Ltd.

Knight, P.T. (ed.) (1997) Masterclass: Learning, Teaching and Curriculum in Taught Master’s Degrees. London: Cassell.

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as The Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Rowland, S. (2000) The Enquiring University Teacher. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Rudduck, J. (1978) Learning Through Small Group Discussion. Surrey: Society for Research into Higher Education, University of Surrey.

Various authors (2006) ‘21st-Century Art History: Global Reception,’ Teaching Art & Design History. Brighton: ADM-HEA and the Association of Art History.


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