Report To Ormond College On Intensive Teaching Methods

Two linked motivating ideas

1. Start with a syllabus but allow the class to diverge from it absolutely as much as they want to, with no limits, provided it keeps a worthwhile intellectual structure. (Rufus was particularly keen on this.)

2. Run the course more as a research project than as a taught class, in the sense that students work out solutions to problems using their own ideas and using literature that they find themselves (but see below). All materials are open to students to see at any time, and online materials are generally open to students to edit.

It follows from these ideas that the course is flipped, in the sense of not being based on lectures, although for me that's not a foundational idea in itself, just a nice consequence.


Writing a report that's long enough to need to be structured carefully is an extremely difficult and important skill for students to practise, especially bearing in mind that almost all of them will be required to write a large structured document later in life: a PhD thesis or a consultancy report or a strategic plan or a novel or legislation ...


This is why there's a big literature in medical education debating the choice between traditional education and problem-based learning (which is exactly what we're doing, except that we have an even freer choice of problems than medical educators do).

Medical degrees that have too much problem-based learning are often criticised for lack of coverage of the syllabus. A competent surgeon needs to know all the major nerves in the body, but nobody in their right minds is going to ask to learn that list. It needs to be in a rigid syllabus.

None of this is a problem for a non-vocational course.

New thoughts after trying this

The students say this might be because in lectures you have to think at the lecturer's pace, and that's tiring. When you can pace your own work, you can concentrate for much longer.

Possible solution for future courses: A degree program could have a specialised "research methods" course in which students get guided practice in finding literature, but I suspect that it's hard for students to get excited about such courses. Many degree programs have them ... but we should aim higher in terms of the excitement levels we expect! So I suggest designating some but not all courses as research-methods-heavy, and allowing extra research time (and therefore less syllabus time) in those courses.

I didn't encounter any problems as a result of the students having different enrolment statuses.

Some details on methods

See for a general discussion of the advantages of wikis.

Since people sometimes would have liked to edit the main wiki page simultaneously, we used a file lock consisting of a small plastic toy recorder, which would be held by the person currently editing the page. Some wiki programs have a built-in file lock, but none of them have one that works well (in my opinion, based on my informal survey of dozens of wiki programs).


Many thanks to the people without whom we couldn't have organised this course: Deb Hull, Anne Bourke, Rob Leach, and Amelia Zaraftis, Acting Principal of Burgmann College (for leave at short notice).

And to the people who contributed to the content of this course: Thérèse Robin, Michael Patterson, Anna Dow, Alison Moore, Caira Hart, Esther Cowen, and Ada Quinn.

Jason Grossman
GEM Fellow, Ormond College