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This issue of CDTL Brief is all about Cultivating Active Learners: Applying Scenario-Based Learning and Other Teaching Strategies to Enrich Classroom Learning. Whether it is utilising “real-life“ or non-analogous scenarios to stimulate students’ interest in complex life science concepts such as metabolism or the human immune system, or using role-play to build students’ confidence in tackling commercial real estate issues, the colleagues who have generously shared their teaching experiences here are united in their common goal of equipping their students with the skills to become active learners.

October/November 2011, Vol. 14 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
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Effective Cancer Pharmacology Teaching Through Guided Self-learning and Students’ Short Presentations in Small Group Tutorials
Dr Gautam Sethi and Associate Professor John M. Luk
Department of Pharmacology


Teaching in small groups affords distinct benefits over the more widely used lecture and one-on-one methods (De Villers, Bresick & Mash, 2003; Jacques, 2003). Through questioning, the exchange of experiences and ideas, the members of the group are able to discuss issues, clarify points and obtain immediate feedback on their doubts and questions (Jacques, 2000; McCrorie, 2006). Through small group tutorials, students are better able to hone their critical thinking and problem solving skills; they also gain substantial interpersonal and communication traits (de Jong et al., 2010). During the tutorials, considerable emphasis is placed on students developing an ability to communicate ideas and on the improvement of their self-confidence and critical analysis of the subject (Mamede, Schmidt & Norman, 2006; Dolmans & Schmidt, 2006; Lohman & Finkelstein, 2000). Small group tutorials also provide opportunities for learning that are difficult to establish in large group settings. They are particularly useful in enabling learners to actively participate in discussions, provide feedback and reflection, and also help students to consolidate their learning, clarify understanding, and explore ideas and concepts (Costa, van Rensburg & Rushton, 2007; Dochy, Segers, Van de Bossche & Gijbels, 2003). Small group events place a greater emphasis on active learning (as opposed to teaching), a specific task or focus, and require the students to interact and actively participate. Hence, most of the modules offered in NUS involve small group tutorials that promote active involvement by all the participants.

However, it has been observed that quite often, a small group tutorial often translates into a ‘mini lecture’. The tutor tends to present all the tutorial solutions to their students most of the time. It is basically a one-way communication between the tutor and the students. Most often and unfortunately, students tend to end up becoming passive listeners with no actual participation during the tutorial. Students hardly prepare for their tutorials and only a few would dominate the discussion. They also want to be given the solutions to problems rather than discuss the issues in depth.

To overcome some of these problems in the cancer pharmacology module I teach, we introduced an innovative method of having student presentations during small group tutorials. Each subgroup, comprising two students, was assigned to prepare a short talk (20-25 minutes) on a relevant topic related to the syllabus and to lead a discussion after their presentation. Our experience and outcome clearly indicates that having student presentations during the tutorial plays a critical role in the all-round education of students, as compared to the more traditional academic scenario of lectures and tutorials. When well-conceived and organised, presentations allow students to read and understand, do in-depth analysis of a given topic, express themselves in the language of the subject, and they are able to establish closer contact with academic staff than more formal methods permit. Discussions during presentations can also help students develop the more instrumental skills of listening, presenting ideas, persuading and working as part of a team. Most importantly, we find that presentations give students an opportunity to monitor their own learning and thus, they gain a degree of self-direction, independence and self-confidence during the course of the module.


The concept of having presentations during small group tutorials was introduced in an undergraduate module LSM4214 “Cancer Pharmacology” which was offered to a medium-sized class of around eighty students for the first time in Semester II AY2009/2010. LSM4214 is considered quite a ‘dry’ subject requiring memorisation of the complicated mechanism behind the action(s) of different drugs being used for the treatment of cancer. Hence, in order to make this course more interesting and innovative, we tried a novel method that involved dividing the class into four groups of twenty students each. As shown in Table 1, the group of twenty students in the tutorial were divided further into ten subgroups of two students each; each subgroup was assigned to study a particular topic related to the class of drugs/signaling molecular targets/mechanism(s) involved in cancer and to summarise their findings in fifteen slides. In each subgroup, the students can choose to present their selected topic separately for ten minutes or they can do a joint twenty-minute presentation followed by ten minutes of discussion.

The slides and oral presentations were evaluated by all the tutors and each student’s performance was assessed out of a total of 10% of the overall grade (five for slide preparations and another five for the oral presentation). In general, the presentation topics were geared towards providing students with a better understanding of the concepts, such as how scientists discover new drug targets against cancers and how pharmaceutical industries develop and evaluate the candidate drugs from animal models to clinical trials. For example, presentation topic two (T2), as seen in Table 1, was included to make students understand the concept of the dysregulated inflammatory response which plays a pivotal role in the development and progression of cancer. The students presenting on T2 primarily focused on the role of various pro-inflammatory mediators in cancer and provided novel insights on the intricate link between chronic inflammation and cancer which were well-received and appreciated by all the tutors. Similarly, for the presentations on T8 and T10, the students discussed the various pros and cons of gene therapies and novel paradigms in the field of cancer stem cells. Most of the presentations were highly interactive and the slides prepared by the students were of good quality; at the same time, they learnt from each others for the other topics. Overall, it was clear that during the course of the presentations, the students were making a sincere effort to apply the knowledge they gained during the lectures and from reading various research papers in the best possible way.
Figure 1. An example of a slide from the “Thinker” series.

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Inside this issue
Contextualised Teaching Towards Active Learning
Using Role Play to Enhance Classroom Learning: A Case Study in Real Estate
Effective Cancer Pharmacology Teaching Through Guided Self-learning and Students’ Short Presentations in Small Group Tutorials
Application of a Novel Non-analogous Scenario for Introducing Human Immunology
Embedding Graduate Attributes Into Four Discipline Areas Using Scenario-based Learning