CDTL    Publications     Mailing List     About Brief



On 13 February 1999, CDTL organised a seminar entitled, “Small Group Work: Are We Doing All Right?”, that was led by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Chong Chi Tat. In this issue of CDTL Brief, we are pleased to bring you the following summary of Professor Chong’s speech and the subsequent Q & A session.

April 30 1999, Vol. 2 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Small Group Work: Are We Doing All Right?
Professor Chong Chi Tat
Deputy Vice-Chancellor

Small group teaching is a long-standing issue in NUS that many feel has not yet been resolved. I don’t pretend to have the answer here today and I don’t expect we’ll have all the answers by the end of the session here. My role here is to generate discussion. Most would agree that small group teaching needs to be further promoted in NUS. But somehow we have not quite succeeded in its implementation. There are five factors to consider:

  1. Asian culture. Our students are not keen or trained to speak up. Most prefer to just stay quiet, let other people take the limelight, and be modest. When Professor Joseph Nile, Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, was in Singapore recently, he gave a talk followed by a discussion to about thirty of our Talent Development Programme students, and he was disappointed by the lack of student participation. There were only one or two students who spoke and one of them was from New Zealand. Most stayed quiet. Was it modesty, humility, or just plain lack of interest ? It is hard to tell. But it is a fact that our students prefer not to interact in a classroom situation. I’m sure many of you can recount experiences like this where your enthusiasm to teach has been dampened by the students’ lack of participation.

  2. Discipline dependent. There are subjects in the humanities where it is easier to express views and opinions. This does not mean that the subjects are less sophisticated, but only that they are probably closer to the hearts or daily experiences of people. For these we expect more students to be prepared to engage in discussions, even if the points are not well-thought out. In contrast, if you are in Mathematics (an area that I’m more familiar with), say a Calculus class, if a student doesn’t understand the concept of limits, then it is very difficult for him to discuss the topic. An Engineering student needs to know some technical background before he can say how an electrical circuit should work. If he is unprepared, he has to keep quiet.

  3. Student quality. If you have good students in your class, the class usually has (or at least has the potential to have) more life. It is more interesting to teach these students as they often ask intelligent questions. But the quality of students varies, from class to class and from discipline to discipline.
    However, every annual survey that we do on the reading habits of NUS students tells us that our students do not have good reading habits. Not enough are interested in current affairs. Most spend time reading lecture notes. And this is true across disciplines, and does not apparently seem to depend on the quality of students.

    How is this behaviour reflected in the lack of participation in small group teaching? Because you are less informed, less interested in things other than those that will lead to the award of a degree, you are less inclined to think beyond examinations. The mind becomes dull.

  4. Lecturers’ attitudes. I think lecturers should encourage students to participate in discussions. However this does not always work. When I was teaching a First Year tutorial class of about 25 students in Mathematics, I wanted the students to take part in discussion. So I assigned students a week ahead of time to go to the board and give the solutions and lead discussions. Within two weeks, the size of my class shrunk by half. The students went to other classes whose lecturers were certainly friendlier. Obviously my approach was unpopular.

    Now some people give up when seeing this. Some don’t. Some people say, “Well, you have tried, but students’ response is not really very good. If you’re not careful, you may receive a very bad grading at the end of the semester.” And students will say, “This lecturer can’t teach. In fact, he made us do things that he should be doing himself.” I think some lecturers worry about that. But as lecturers, we should take the initiative to get students to do what we think is right. If we give up, then small group teaching would fail. It’s either you follow what students want to do, or you make them do what you want them to do, i.e. to think. This leads to a lot of frustration. Unless we break this vicious circle, we will be in this kind of situation for a long, long time.

  5. Space/timetable problem. If we want small group teaching, we will need classrooms and a good timetable. But many people have pointed out that there are not enough classrooms. By definition, a small group, I suppose, has less then 20 students. If you do that, students should then be in smaller classes. Therefore in theory, lecturers’ workload would go up. You need to find a place to house these small groups of students, as well as the time and lecturers available. These are operational issues. Some staff offices in various departments are able to accommodate 6 to 8 students, 10 if you squeeze really hard. But of course, no office can take in 20 students. Maybe that’s good – some people have observed that if you’re in a really small group of 5 or 6 students, everyone will be forced to speak because people will take notice of the ones who don’t. Unless of course everybody’s quiet, then you will have a quiet one-hour session looking at one another.

Related issues: recognition. There are other related problems: e.g. people worry about student rating, feedback etc. They wonder whether the extra effort put into small group teaching will be properly rewarded and recognised – promotion, salary adjustment etc. To many people these ought to be linked somehow. I think this is fair. If we want to encourage good teaching, we should give good teachers the proper recognition. Then, the next delicate question people want answered is what is the relative weight between teaching and research. Clearly, we want both. The person has to be good in both, and hopefully also good in administration. We want everybody to be perfect, but the world is not perfect. It’s difficult for us for example at this point to say that the weight given to teaching will be 50.5%, and then research will be 49.5% or something like that. It is difficult to give a quantitative value to this kind of thing. But I would like to say that independent of recognition or rewards, it is our duty as teachers in the university to do the best we can. We have the responsibility to educate our students to be creative. Indeed we have to be true to the profession of scholarship to which we have dedicated our lives.

The need for peer review. Nevertheless, the university has already given recognition to people known to be good teachers, e.g. the Teaching Awards. But some have pointed out that winning the Teaching Award is not necessarily a true reflection of good teaching, that it is a popularity contest. I absolutely agree that to depend solely on student feedback to give teaching awards is not right. It has to be balanced with the review of lecturers’ teaching by colleagues. It’s vital that lecturers don’t just pander to students’ wishes for recipe-type teaching. We don’t want this – which is why peer review is important.

Small group teaching vs. large student population. I have digressed from the key issue of small group teaching. But I hope you have some idea of the complex issues that surround this topic. I think there is a task force on small group teaching with representatives from faculties. What we want to do is first bring the concept of small group teaching to the awareness of our colleagues in NUS. It is a contradiction in terms – we have close to 20,000 students now on campus. Many classes are big classes. We have lecture theatres that can take in 500, 600 students. We have seminar rooms in the new Engineering block that can hold 50 to 60 people – hardly what one would call small group teaching. Yet here we are discussing the need to achieve small group teaching as if we are unaware of what’s happening outside. So how do we strike a compromise between these 2 contending forces?

Clearly, small group teaching is preferable. It is the better way of teaching if we want to give more than just a piece of paper to our students at the end of three, four or five years. We want our graduates to get more than just a job. If we are serious about life-long education, we should get students to understand that acquiring a skill is not as important as acquiring a habit of life-long learning. A skill is outdated before long. A habit of learning will allow him to continue to update himself, to be always relevant and able to adapt to changes. If that is the objective we want to achieve, then small group teaching is indeed a very urgent matter that we should look into very seriously. We will then have to see how we can resolve this in the face of large classes and large number of students.

 First Look articles

Search in
Email the Editor
Inside this issue
Small Group Work: Are We Doing All Right?
Q & A Session