Exemplar: Dr Michael O'Keefe - POL2IPP

At La Trobe there are some excellent practices of teaching and learning using flexible, online and blended approaches. This exemplar has been chosen to develop awareness and knowledge of how subjects and courses can use learning technologies to engage students and increase learning outcomes.

Flipping the curriculum: Engaging students through connected learning

Dr Michael O'Keefe
Coordinator, POL2IPP: International Public Policy

The challenge

Student engagement in critical thinking was the challenge. In POL2IPP this took two forms: engaging students with key concepts in the literature of international relations and public policy, then applying these concepts to the transformative issues that are current on the world arena. Engaging them with each other was key to accomplishing this.

This core subject in the Bachelor of International Relations is organised around questions such as:

"Is the international order undergoing a rapid transformation?"; "in what sense can international affairs be said to be ordered?" Michael aimed to engage students in critical thinking that went beyond the boundaries of the curriculum, in which students learn and apply critical thinking to world affairs.This challenge arose in the broader context of an emerging student cohort that reflects the post-Bradley era of uncapped student entry into courses. In this instance, there were four contributing factors that required a reappraisal of engagement: a cohort with a diverse range of ATAR levels, forms of engagement as a transactional experience, extra-curricular demands on students such as the need to work, and physical distance from campus that affected students' attendance patterns.

The approach

Re-designing the lecture was the key to the teaching approach in POL2IPP. Rather than a platform for presentation, the lecture became a forum for making key connections for students – with the readings, with key issues in the field, and with each other. In this a class of 80 students, Michael worked from the issues that students had indicated they were not confident about prior to the lecture. Once the model was trialled it was then rolled into a much larger free elective subject (with 220 students).

To do this, sequencing of assignment tasks, tutorials and lectures was important. Students posted a 100 word weekly summary of readings prior to their tutorial. These weekly tutorial exercises accumulated to a 1000 word assessment worth 25%.

Assessment Percentage of mark
1. Tutorial exercises produced weekly (1000 words) 25%
2. Mid-semester exam (1000 words) 25%
3. Major essay of 2000 words 50%

To encourage engagement in the initial assessment tasks, students are asked to select one out of 4 readings (one that appealed to them), PLUS a news editorial on a current, relevant topic. In this process students framed their own enquiry, hence they are encouraged to "own" their issue. During the tutorial session, Michael drew on a selection of these 100 word posts to personalise the session and connect to the issues students have invested in.

The final step in the sequence is the lecture, in which Michael draws on the concepts and tensions that have arisen from tutorials to facilitate an interactive session. He focuses on critical issues, using techniques such as playing devil's advocate to enable students to apply critical thinking.

Critical success factors

A flipped curriculum model is an alternative to traditional of lecture-centred models. Lectures become active learning spaces in which learning resources are available prior to class time, which then becomes a workshop for active engagement and shared enquiry, and for applying and testing knowledge and critical thinking.

In POL2IPP, the flipped model required:

  • A focus on making connections: between students and the issues that arise in POL2IPP,  with each other, and to the world of international relations and policy that opens to students
  • Sequencing of assessment tasks, tutorials and lectures

The level of student engagement that resulted from this subject re-design was confirmed by high pass rates and strong positive feedback.

Plans for the future

Building on the successful engagement in the subject, Michael has planned extending this systematic approach to engaging students through enquiry-based learning (EBL). He has re-designed the subject for EBL mode and students are shaping the curriculum as part of their assessment.


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