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This issue of CDTL Brief features articles based on select presentations at the Teaching Workshop on Freshman Seminars conducted by the Faculty of Science on 22 April 2009.

September 2009, Vol. 12 No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Promoting Individual Learning Through Small Classes
Professor Satoshi Ogihara
Biological Science, Graduate School of Science Office for International Planning and Programs,
International Affairs Board
Osaka University, Osaka, Japan

For decades, Japan’s Yutori education, which means ‘relaxed education’ or ‘education free from pressure’, has led to an education crisis characterised by students’ declining academic abilities. A major revision of teaching guidelines in the 1970s and active university reform in 2002 transformed Japan’s national universities into independent national corporations in 2004. This allowed research/education budgets for universities to be more competitive and introduced financial support for Ph.D. students, while reforms in undergraduate education began to consider the ‘gap’ between high school and university seriously. In the following sections, I shall attempt to present what the School of Science at Osaka University has done in the last 10 years on freshman-year reforms to provide a more individualised education using smaller classes to encourage every student to study, think and view the world as individuals.

The School of Science at Osaka University is a small undergraduate school with a student enrolment of 260 per year and 218 teaching faculty members for undergraduate programmes. Classes are generally small with 25–60 students in each programme, while first-year foundation course classes have 70 students at most. All departments welcome their freshmen by taking them on the Freshman Retreat—a two-day excursion during the first few weeks of admission. The retreat’s main objective is to engage students in discussions with faculty members and help students transit from the rote learning mode in high schools to a different academic culture in the university.

Once classes begin, students are gradually exposed to small-seminars/programmes that are often sandwiched between relatively larger classes. This ensures that students will not be overwhelmed by anonymity, but remain inspired and stimulated. There are six such programmes (see Figure. 1). However, given space limitations, I will focus on only two programmes.

Figure 1. Small-sized seminars/programmes offered by the School of Science, Osaka University.

Basic Seminars for Freshmen is a university-wide programme that offers a total of 304 seminars annually to 3,200 freshmen. Although not compulsory, most freshmen irrespective of their majors, take at least one such seminar of their choice for 90 minutes each week in the 15-week semester. For example, a science major student may take a seminar on “Shakespeare and his love” and a literature-major student may take “Immune systems” or vice-versa. In addition, these seminars expose students to heterogeneous student groups from science, engineering, humanities or sociology and so on. Examples of seminar topics include “Making Relativistic Games”, “An Investigation of the Research Capacity of Osaka University”, “The Psychology of Perception” and “The Art of Questioning”.

The freshman seminars expose students to a wide range of topics and the functions of a university. Most seminars are conducted in groups of less than 10 students, where their individual characteristics are clearly recognised by their teachers and classmates. The small group setting provides students with opportunities for discussion and participation which are not possible in large lecture halls.

“Thursday Projects” for Science Freshmen, is a compulsory one-year programme offered by the School of Science in which students attend either one of their own majors every Thursday afternoon for 90 minutes. Each seminar consists of five to ten freshmen or a total of 260 freshmen. The seminar topics include “Simple and Deep Mechanics”, “Measurement of Environmental Radiation”, “Challenging Experiments in Electromagnetism” (physics), “Live Imaging of Intracellular Organelles”, “Separation of Photosynthetic Chromophores”, “Experiments on Protein Conformation” (biology) and “The Joy of Mathematics” (mathematics).

Figure 2. Basic seminars for freshmen—“The art of critical thinking”—an example

At the end of the freshman seminars in the physics department, every student gives a presentation. The teachers are generally not too concerned with the level of achievement as the seminars aim to give first-year students a chance to experience the depths of science. They also refresh students’ memory on basic science concepts to prepare them for the general topics in the first year curriculum. More importantly, the seminars aim to change students’ perceptions of leaning which are often influenced by high school learning and rote learning for the entrance examination.

Student-centred education in a globalised world is like environmentalism for education. In freshman seminars, the small classes foster a sense of individuality in each student. Individuality can lead to students’ active participation in university life, classes, research and everything else. Meaningful learning occurs when the following three components work together in the classroom: cognitive domain function (knowledge/comprehension), affective domain function (feelings/motivation), and psychomotor domain function (manual/physical skills). Large classes tend to be driven by teachers with an obsession to deliver numerous facts and stimulate only the cognitive function in students, resulting in a superficial understanding of the facts.

David Williams, a junior at UC Berkeley who studied mostly in large classes and spent little time in student labs, is now able to experience small classes/student labs at Osaka University, says:

Most importantly, I have learned that it is not my ability to understand a concept to the deepest possible and most complex degree that will allow me to discover facts others have never known, but it is my ability to use this to make simple, concise, and elegant experiments that point clearly to the truth of the matter at hand.

David adds that his experience at Osaka University led to the realisation that in order to become a researcher, he had to understand textbook knowledge “to the deepest,” and his conclusion, before experiencing small classrooms/groups at the School of Science was that “I do not have an ability to become a researcher.” He continues to say that the benefits of small classes are enormous:

Large classes make students feel that they are surrounded by competitors for better grades, and so they concentrate only on PowerPoint slides on a large screen to be memorised, take notes for exams, and pay less attention to the professor. In large classes, professors often present overly general topics in a standard lecture style with a TV-eye, and they avoid expressing their personal feelings and experiences. Small classes help students focus on the professors and they do not feel bothered by their competing classmates. Small classes also make professors change their presentation style, and as they talk to the students, they have more chances to share their personal experiences in research. As a result, small classes give students synergistic benefits, enable them to feel closer to researcher and explore the depth of the information with fresh perspectives, hence resulting in a complete change of mindset towards learning.

Finally, I would like to address the importance of small classes and the role of universities in nurturing researchers of the next generation. The high ratio of faculty members to first-year students (218 to 260), is an inevitable requirement of such a programme and its development cannot always be guaranteed in a research-centred university. Moreover, not all the six programmes (in Figure 1) have secured the minimum number of teaching staff required to run them. As a result, the classes are sometimes taught by volunteer teachers.

The only negative issue is the cost/performance ratio. Although small classes are costly and demand a high student/teacher ratio, their impact on the university at the global scale is beyond question. While an effective reform that would yield benefi ts for our future is often found in small-sized education, I have yet to know the perfect solution and I would rather share the challenging question with you all. The answer obviously depends on your vision of the world and how you see science.

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Inside this issue
Freshman Seminar: A Forum to Learn More by Teaching Less
FSE1202: Great Discoveries and Inventions
Freshman Seminar Module: A Mathematical Experiment
Promoting Individual Learning Through Small Classes
Teaching Sustainable Development to Freshmen
A Freshman Seminar in FASS: “Representing War”
At Last, Learning Can Really be Fun!