Learning Innovation Unit, Dublin City University

Learning Innovation Unit

Learning Innovation Fund Awards

Brien Nolan - Developing Case Studies for Maths and Science Tutor/Demonstrator Training

Principal applicant

Brien Nolan

School or Unit

Mathematical Sciences

Additional Applicants

Odilla Finlayson, Chemical Sciences, odilla.finlayson@DCU.ie

Eilish.McLoughlin, Physical Sciences, eilish.mcloughlin@DCU.ie

Michael Parkinson, Biotechnology, michael.parkinson@DCU.ie

Amount requested


Summary description

Case studies can be used in tutor/demonstrator training in much the same way as they are used in business and legal education: the group study and discussion of fictional but realistic scenarios (describing situations that arise in and around tutorials and laboratory classes) can accelerate knowledge and experience. Their use formed the basis of an element of the tutor training programme for new tutors in the School of Mathematical Sciences in September 2005 using materials developed by Prof Solomon Friedberg of Boston College, the pioneer in this area. The aim of this project is to recruit a team of experienced tutors and laboratory demonstrators and to develop with them similar training materials relevant to the Irish system. These will then be used for tutor/demonstrator training in the Faculty of Science and Health (FSH).

Strategic Objectives

5. Learning Innovation (5.1 Supporting Excellence in Teaching); 3. Enhanced Learner Achievement (3.3 Retention and Progression; 3.5 Increased Quality of Experience for Postgraduate Students)

Strategic Context

5.1 Excellence in teaching

The principal aim of this project is to develop a training initiative for science tutors and demonstrators in DCU to enable them to better serve the learning needs of the undergraduate students in their classes and laboratories. This will provide a new strand of the tutor/demonstrator training programme and thus support excellence in a key interface between learners and teachers.

3.3 Retention and progression

Tutorials and/or laboratory classes form an essential component of nearly every maths and science module in DCU, and thus the presence of better prepared tutors/demonstrators will contribute to a better learning experience for students and will feed directly into the maintenance of standards and contribute to improved retention and progression rates.

3.5 Quality of postgraduate experience

Tutors and demonstrators undertaking the new training programme will benefit from the training and other transferrable skills that the initiative seeks to engender.

Implementation Plan

The applicants and 12 experienced tutors/demonstrators (3 from each School) will carry out the project. 8 new tutors/demonstrators will be involved in the final phase of the project.

(S1) Recruitment of tutors/demonstrators, distribution of documentation. [03/06]

(S2) First day-long workshop. Discussion of issues that arise in tutorials and laboratory classes; development of Case outlines. Selection of 4 teams of 3 to author 1 Case each covering general issues; School-based teams of 3 to author 2 Cases each on discipline-specific issues. [04/06]

(S3) Tutors/demonstrators draft scenarios, submit for editing. [05-06/06]

(S4) Second day-long workshop. Critical discussion of the cases to generate ideas for revision. [07/06]

(S5) Revisions by authors; submission for final editing and collating; publication on website. [08/06]

(S6) Use of Case Studies in tutor/demonstrator training. [09/06]

(S7) Half-day workshop for revision of Cases by 8 new tutors/demonstrators who used them in their training. [12/06]

The bulk of the work for tutors/demonstrators (postgraduate research students) takes place out of term, so the indicated timeline (03-09/06) is realistic.

The project will address these objectives of the LI Strategic Plan.

(i) Supporting Excellence in Teaching. Enhancing the quality of teaching undertaken by science tutors/demonstrators will do this.

(ii) Retention and progression. Having better tutors/demonstrators in place will support student learning, leading to improvements in standards generally and contributing to improved retention and progression rates.

(iii) Quality of postgraduate experience. The training materials developed will provide postgraduate students with important transferable skills.

The pedagogical bases for this project are twofold.

(i) Importance of training for trainers, as reported in a wealth of sources (see the Glenn Report "Before It's Too Late: A Report to the Nation from the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century" (US Department of Education, September 2000).

(ii) Effectiveness of the Case Method as an educational tool (e.g. Barnes, Christensen and Hansen, Teaching and the Case Method, Harvard Business School Press, 1994.)


The impact of the project on undergraduate learning will be through the provision of better trained tutors/demonstrators. This will be gauged by quality of laboratory reports and discussions and by analysing student feedback on tutors and tutorials in annual surveys.

First year students in science spend 10hrs per week under the guidance of tutors and demonstrators. This project will directly impact on at least 48,000 student contact hours (taking first year FSH students alone). Hours involved in subsequent years more than treble this figure.

The impact on the postgraduate experience will also be evaluated. How well new tutors/demonstrators feel they have been prepared for tutoring/demonstrating will be assessed. Their opinions will be surveyed before and after they have undertaken tutorial/lab work and will be compared with opinions from previous tutors/demonstrators who did not undertake the Case Studies training.

The ongoing redesign of the Case Studies is an integral part of the project, and will involve the key users of the materials developed; new tutors/demonstrators in the FSH.

Dissemination and Sustainability

The principal mode by which the training materials developed in this project are disseminated will be the website mentioned above, which will be updated to reflect the progress of the project. The results of the project will be presented to the Irish 3rd level mathematics community at the 3rd Irish Symposium on Undergraduate Mathematics Education, December 2006 (dates and location TBA), and it is hoped that this will lead to the materials being used in other Irish universities. Outcomes will be presented internationally at science education research meetings such as ESERA (www.esera.org).

The Case Studies as revised in light of their use with new tutors/demonstrators will constitute a final version. They will then provide training material suitable for use over the coming years: sustainability costs will be zero. Any further revisions required by changing circumstances in terms of tutorial/laboratory practice will be done on a smaller scale by the project team and current tutors, with costs borne by the Faculty of Science and Health.

Detailed budget


The stage of the project where each cost is incurred is indicated by (S1) etc. See Section 4 - Implementation Plan.

Item: 16 copies of "Teaching Mathematics in Colleges and Universities: Case Studies for Today's Classroom: Faculty Edition" - Solomon Friedberg (AMS 2001)

Cost: €425

Notes: A copy of this book will be provided to each of the tutors/demonstrators participating in the project prior to the first workshop (S1). US$513.25 (€424.76) quoted 19/01/06 American Mathematical Society online bookstore

Item: Payment for tutors participating in the project.

Cost: €11600

Notes: 36 hours for each of 12 experienced tutors/demonstrators at €25 per hour. This allocates 6 hours for each of the all-day workshops (S2,S4), 20 hours for authoring of cases (S3) and 4 hours for revision (S5). 4 hours for each of 8 new tutors/demonstrators at €25 per hour for final stage revision (S7).

Item: Materials

Cost: €400

Notes: Flipcharts, photocopying and other materials for workshops.

Item: Travel, accommodation and subsistence

Cost: €1200

Notes: It is expected that up to 4 of the tutors/demonstrators - recent DCU PhD graduates - working on the project will come from outside Dublin. The project will cover their travel and overnight expenses for each of the two day-long workshops (train: €60; b'n'b: €50; evening meal: €40).

TOTAL: €13,625


The Faculty of Science and Health's tutor/demonstrator training budget is significantly lower that the amount required for this project. As this project will benefit a major section of the DCU student population, and in particular in the case of maths, students from outside the Faculty, we feel that it is approriate to seek financial support from the LIU.

The principal cost is the stipend to be paid to tutors/demonstrators participating in the project. It is essential to provide them with a competitive rate for their work to ensure their commitment. We feel that the total amount per tutor/demonstrator (€900) will be sufficient inducement for this. (The stipend and the indicated time allowances also serve to indicate that a significant amount of time should be spent on the central part of the project, the authoring of the Case Studies.) This total will be paid in instalments, subject to completion of the different stages of the project.

As well as current senior postgraduate students, we expect to recruit some DCU PhD graduates who have worked as tutors/demonstrators for several years in the Faculty of Science and Health for this project. Most of these now work outside Dublin, and so we will cover the expenses for attending the day-long workshops to ensure their participation.

Other Information

The use of Case Studies in tutor training was run as a pilot project in the School of Mathematical Sciences in September 2005 (see www.DCU.ie/~nolanb/casestudies.htm). This made use of the Cases in Prof. Friedberg's manual "Teaching Mathematics in Colleges and Universities: Case Studies for Today's Classroom: Faculty Edition". The material therein was developed for US universities, and while it provided a useful resource, it was clear from the experience of running the workshop and from tutors' comments that cases directly relevant to the Irish context would be of significantly more use. We made use of 3 cases. The intention in the future is to use 3 in pre-service tutor/demonstrator training, and 3 during in-service training for each of the 4 disciplines (biotechnology/chemistry/maths/physics).

BN presented a talk on the running of this pilot project at the CASTeL research seminar in November 2005. In the ensuing discussion, it became clear that many of the issues covered in the Cases were of a general educational nature, and so much of the training material could be remoulded for use both in maths (and theoretical science) tutor training and in science laboratory demonstrator training. However it will also be important to develop Cases that also deal with discipline specific issues and that take account of the different learning environments.

Comments on the application process

Filling out the forms was a bit awkward; I wasn't able to find an efficient way of saving them and updating the form. This also had the effect of making word-counting awkward. That said, online application is MUCH better than the alternative.