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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.