Chong Chi Tat (CCT): You were suggesting
getting new students to come in for some kind of orientation
on learning in a university environment. For how long?
Participant: For a day.
CCT: A day – we can certainly look
into that. Of course one day will not change a person. But
at least they will be informed of what’s expected of
them. But subsequently, there is a need for constant reminder
through action or lecturers’ teaching. That attitudinal
change has got to be there. When we implement a new university
admission system in about 2½ years’ time, I believe
it will have an impact on the way students learn and are taught
in junior college and secondary school. So even if we don’t
see an immediate change, in a generation, there’s light
at the end of the tunnel. But a one-day seminar is something
that we can think about. I remember CDTL had previously prepared
a brochure for students on how to learn…
Daphne Pan (DP), CDTL Director: We still
have that. We were hoping that this will be promoted at faculty
level, that at the orientation, students will be alerted to
the fact. But if not much is really going to happen in a day,
the idea really is to spell out the rules of game, so they
are aware of our expectations of them at the university.
Participant: The way we assess our students
– if we don’t emphasise their participation in
small group tutorial, there’s no way we can get all
of them to participate. We ought to have a penalty system
to prevent them from keeping quiet throughout the whole semester.
CCT: That can be done and has been done
in many courses as part of a student’s continuous assessment.
Instead of quizzes for example, lecturers rate students’
participation in tutorials and give marks accordingly. If
you tell students that continuous assessment will be 40, 50%
of the final grade, they take it more seriously. It’s
up to each lecturer. We now encourage continuous assessment
in as many courses as possible to glean the student’s
level of understanding of the course from tutorial participation.
A lot depends on what you do with the students when you ask
them to take part, depending on the nature of the course.
In a Maths course, I asked a student to give solutions on
the blackboard. Later on I found out he had copied from his
friend. But he participated – he went to the blackboard.
The only thing is he had difficulty explaining the solution.
When you want a student to participate, you need to look into
how to evaluate whether the student understands and really
did his work. I believe the lecturer should have a lot of
liberty in deciding how and what to measure.
Participant: There should be even more
flexibility for lecturers than what we have now to determine
what percentage goes to participation, quizzes, or to small
group work within the schedule.
CCT: But aren’t you given that flexibility?
Actually, we don’t really mind. We believe in this matter
the lecturer-in-charge knows best and should have the liberty
to decide on the award of points. When I was Head of the Department
of Information Systems and Computer Science, I interfered
very little with how lecturers tested their students, except
for insisting that moderation of exam papers be done. Lecturers
were expected to do their best in teaching. Beyond that, they
had complete freedom in deciding how many questions to set,
the percentage of continual assessment, and the mode of examination.
Bearing in mind that different subjects have different requirements,
and different lecturers have different preferences, the department
or faculty should not dictate, for example, that every exam
paper shall have 5 questions, 3 of which are to be compulsory,
2 are optional and every one shall have 17.5 points.
DP: May I say something to clarify? There’re
policies governing weightage – there’re very different
practices in different faculties. We’ve the impression
that certain things are sacred…
CCT: Society changes – nowadays many
things are no longer sacred. Certainly in examination matters
lecturers-in-charge should have a big say in how their students
are to be examined. But when they do this, it will be important
to bear in mind one of the objectives of a university education
is to produce thinking people. Approval has been given to
courses for 100% continuous assessment. There’s a general
guideline that a course shouldn’t have more than 40%
continuous assessment. But the Senate has the power to grant
deviation from this guideline. Departments just have to submit
a recommendation for waiver to the Senate that continuous
assessment be given X percentage for a particular course.
The merits of the recommendation will be considered.
Participant: To make the students participate,
it depends most importantly on the teacher’s own attitude
to the student. Does he classify the student as good or bad?
Does he classify the questions that come as good or bad? I
guess the goal of small group teaching is how do you make
the student speak?
CCT: Obviously we feel that if a student
speaks up and asks questions, it’s good for the student.
Confucius said thousands of years ago that if you know what
you know, and you know what you don’t know, then you
really know. Many of us, including students, do not have this
attitude – it’s a loss of face to declare your
ignorance. It’s difficult to change the culture, but
we have to continue our efforts in making sure students see
the light while they are here studying in the university.
Participant from Mathematics: Continuous
assessment is a productive way to increase participation;
but we must also be aware of its problems. One was mentioned
by Prof Chong – in which people copy their friends’
solutions and present it on the board. How much does that
count? Personally, I often do the problems myself on the board,
and while I’m doing it, I go along the rows, ask questions:
why am I doing this, what should I do next etc. I think this
is more productive than having somebody do something on the
board without explanation. So there are the questions of how
to assess; subjectivity; and if continuous assessment is emphasised
too much, does it create such pressure in class that people
don’t dare speak up?
There is also the gender issue. Last semester, I taught
a class with about 80% girls and looked at the continuous
assessment of my tutors: it was clear the guys were getting
significantly better scores on their CA components than the
girls. Yet at the start of the semester, I did a survey on
my students and knew statistically that the girls actually
had higher A-level Maths scores than the boys. So there isn’t
any clear reason why the boys should get higher scores. I
had 3 tutors, 2 of whom were girls – the female tutors
especially were giving very high grades.
What are we trying to do in tutorial? I aim to ensure that
everybody says something at least two, three times during
a class, depending on the class size. I do that by asking
very easy questions row by row and I will help them along
so that being silent is going to be a loss of face. But really,
can we get some active learning done during lectures? I do
try: sometimes I start with mini-quizzes; then I ask them
to swop with the person next to them and mark it. However,
their performances are all so different. I also give little
handouts on the first day of class, an academic orientation
found on my web page too. I try to teach them that how well
you perform at university depends a lot on whether you quickly
realise this isn’t JC anymore.
CCT: Well, I didn’t mention this
gender factor. According to your survey it’s a big difference.
Maybe it’s discipline-based? Would Arts & Social
Science people care to comment on this?
Participant from Arts: The gender difference
probably depends on the discipline because in Arts, overwhelming
majority are women. If the women don’t talk, you actually
have silence. On encouraging the students to speak, we should
take care not to trivialise speech in small group setting.
By allowing people to say a few words, are we really achieving
the aims in small group teaching? The attitude of lecturers
is also critical. In Arts Faculty, my colleagues often teach
ten hours of tutorial a week. We can tire out when we go into
a session, nothing happens and we’ve to dictate the
whole fifty minutes, ten times a week. Eventually it’s
a Catch-22 situation where the lecturer is discouraged, the
tutorial becomes unpleasant for the students, and they come
to dread the tutorials. But one good thing that I’ve
learnt since I’ve been teaching here from Daphne during
teaching orientation – if the task of the tutorial is
set right, you can go straight away from information dissemination
towards critical digestion of facts. Then each tutorial becomes
a new session, depending on the group dynamics. This way,
I can move along the week looking forward to seeing different
groups of students and learning from their discussion of lecture
Participant from Biochemistry: I came to
NUS having taught in London and California at Davis. What
worried me coming to NUS was the concept that if you want
the student to know something, you have to lecture on it and
supply lecture notes. With the growth of computer-based learning,
we’re actually going to tell the students: a lot of
information will not be taught in formal lectures, the information
and your self-assessment is on the web, you do multiple choice
questions on the computer. You prepare yourself and then you
come for small group learning. This automatically helps to
improve the status of small group learning in the students’
minds. In London, we have a scheme now where we give topics
to second and final year students that they research themselves
and are examined on it. We are trying to build that up and
get away from formal lecture structures. It’s proving
painful, as students don’t want you to do that. But
they go away and do it because they are examined on it. Then
they come to the small group tutorials with real points that
you have to explore with them.
CCT: The two previous comments are related:
you want students to be really discussing issues in tutorials,
and not just talking because there is continuous assessment.
So for a productive tutorial, you expect students to be prepared
when they come in. The final objective of small group teaching
is that you facilitate active learning. Students learn from
one another and the lecturer. Even lecturers, as mentioned,
can benefit from student discussion. With the proliferation
of information technology, we certainly encourage lecturers
to get students to do their own reading on the web or whatever,
so that more focus can be given to small group teaching. This
is why we launched this live TV multi-cast on campus so that
large classes that do not benefit from close interaction between
lecturers and students can be replaced by lectures-on-demand.
Then students who need factual information can get it from
there, while at the same time, read a lot and attend small
group tutorials where they can learn the most. After watching
the programme on the computer, if they have issues that they
want to raise, they can go to tutorials and then ask their
questions and contribute their ideas. So IT can be a very
powerful tool if we use it correctly. But at the same time,
we don’t want to become a distance-learning campus where
everything is done through IT.
Participant from Architecture: I want to
share this idea of small and larger group – we divide
students into a number of groups, I set them all different
problems, they go away to prepare. We eventually get together
at the year’s end when all the groups make their presentations.
Through this exercise, everyone learns. Of course all this
is backed up by lectures. Because they’ve done some
background work, they’re more able to contribute. Even
then, it takes a bit more to get them going by asking them
questions about their presentation. At least you get a kind
of dialogue going, and through it, a kind of learning that
benefits both the group and the whole year. We’ve a
lot of small group teaching in Architecture – so I wonder
if everything has to be tied up with the carrot and the stick.
Must you always say this is evaluated, this is given a weightage,
to motivate them to contribute?
Participant from Computing: When getting
people to speak up in a small group situation, should we concentrate
on those who are naturally shy, who may have good ideas but
are afraid to speak up? If we get these people to speak up,
maybe the rest will also join in. Does anyone have any experience
Participant from Chemical Engineering: Is making students speak the objective of small group teaching,
or something else? To me, the purpose is to make them think,
more than what you can achieve in a big lecture setting. If
you really want them to speak, then teach them the art of
speaking. The important thing is to ask questions and reply
to questions, essentially drawing their attention to the finer
details of whatever we convey in lectures, to make them think
continuously and crystallise their understanding.
CCT: Of course the ultimate objective of
small group teaching is to get students to think and learn.
To achieve that, you need interaction. It will be difficult
to gauge the level of understanding that the student has acquired
from attending lectures unless he is able to ask questions,
answer questions and comment on what others say. Maybe through
quizzes and small examinations he gets straight A’s
so that you know he is a very good student, but if he keeps
quiet himself throughout you may not even be aware of his
presence. However, I look at the broader picture of a student’s
future. When a quiet person like that joins the job market,
can he interact effectively with society? He cannot be an
island all by himself. So to participate in discussions is
also a form of training in communication – how to interact
with people, listen, react, express ideas, function more effectively
with superiors and colleagues. The worst is to have a quiet
colleague who doesn’t let you know his thoughts. If
you ask him an engineering question, I suppose he’ll
just write down the answer – 35.6 m, that’s it.
That won’t be a very effective worker. So I think communication
skill is useful as a tool for societal interaction.
Participant from Centre for English Language Communication
(CELC): I teach communication at Engineering Faculty
and students should participate in order to learn and to communicate.
Over the years we’ve asked our students why they have
so much difficulty with saying their thoughts. They often
answer: this subject is not given the same recognition as
other courses, e.g. only like 1.5 marginal credits, so they
don’t care so much and therefore just do the minimum.
It’s also a matter of attitude. While the lecturers
support this participation, they don’t see the faculty
actively endorsing this skill. In the first lecture on communication
at Temesek Poly, the Dean actually talks to the students about
how important communication is. So can we have more endorsement
for this need to participate from higher authorities?
CCT: This was suggested just now by Dr
Chee Yam San: at the beginning of every year, devote a day
when the Dean, or Head of Department, has a session with new
students to make them understand this point. Again constant
reminder on the purpose of education will be useful.
Participant/Dentistry Dean: Although the
general objective of tutorials is there, different faculties
have different reasons. We know what we want to achieve, but
do the students actually know what they should achieve? Are
we preparing them in tutorial to pass exams, or are you actually
preparing them to think on their own? If you ask them that
question, there are no answers. In other faculties, if they
are unprepared and know nothing about the subject they’re
being taught, they will only fail the exams. But the consequence
for us is not just failing the exams. All my students in their
third year are actually treating patients – they must
know how to manage the patient. It is very critical. Some
of us here want students to speak up because you want to communicate.
But for us, we want them to obtain knowledge and critical-think
through the whole process of patient management.
Participant from Engineering: In Engineering,
the problem is critical, but not as immediate as Dentistry.
An Engineering student should be able to participate in discussion.
However, can he understand the concepts? Does he understand
how a conductor amplifier works, what it does? The tutorial
then becomes an opportunity for the tutor to clarify these
Participant from CELC: I teach communications
at the School of Computing. Because ours is an application-based
course, our tutorials are based on the assignments that are
related to the lectures. We do a lot of group work with the
students. If I just go in and ask for comments, most times
the students are quiet. But after they’ve done their
group work, they tend to have more views to share. Perhaps
this is something that we can promote.
Participant from Dentistry: I don’t know what the university
definition of a small group is. For me, 6 or 10 is small group.
But for you it might not be. When we’re talking about
things like that, it’s not coming from a common place.
I think in a big group, you may miss some people in there
when you’re discussing things; they get away with it
because they are such a big group. Whereas in a small group,
if you don’t talk, my eyes are there looking at you.
CCT: Small group ideally should be 1:1.
Unfortunately things are not ideal. When I mentioned 25, it’s
clearly undesirable. What we could do, because of the lack
of space, is to have tutorial classes conducted in staff offices,
which means 6 to 8 at most. But there are operational issues
involved. If you have a course with 500, 600 students taking
it, how many tutorial classes do you need to conduct to cope?
We need to think about these practical problems carefully.
So 25, 30 is an unsatisfactory compromise – I would
be the first to agree.
Participant from Science: For maths students,
class size doesn’t matter. There are many ways to conduct
meaningful tutorials whether you are in a big or small group.
It’s an art. When we talk about communication, the relationship
is also vital. If I care for the students, they will know
that I care for them and want them to learn, then they will
respond. So we should build up the relationship in tutorial
groups. We should know their names, call them by name and
get to know them so as to draw them out, and bring out the
passion in them to learn.
Participant: I agree. What other possibilities
are there to draw students out? People are usually very responsive
if the whole exercise is made exciting. You talk to a group
of people – if you know exactly what he likes, and you
talk about that topic, this makes his day, he can really give
you a good tutorial. And I’ve tried many things in a
tutorial. Sometimes, I tell the student that I’m going
to bring my brain into your brain. So let’s start off
with that new problem on the board. I ask him, at every second,
what am I thinking now? What am I going to do? At times I
make a mistake, re-correct myself, do it this way and finally
get the solution. Then he can see the thinking process. This
kind of tutorial is not easy to carry out by novice staff
members, because you’ve to be ready for anything. So
SGT involves critical thinking, good students, excellent teachers
who can perform such tasks.
Student participation very much hinges on how the tutor
conducts himself. I can attend a lecture, one, two hours,
and still be awake if the lecturer is really exciting. Some
people speak for half an hour, they repeat themselves and
I switch off. It’s not a matter of time – it’s
the dynamics. Size also becomes irrelevant if you can lecture
to 250 people and 3 people (which I’ve done before).
How do you flow with the people, grab their attention, make
it exciting for 3 to 250 people? Of course smaller size you
get closer attention. But it’s not the only thing. If
you have a big size, you have 6 people in front, continually
participating with you, the others as observer. And next week,
we do the same, just rotate it. You can do all kinds of novel
ways of tackling this big area, and yet getting participation.
Besides that, you must have quality lecturers; otherwise,
this whole thing collapses.
Participant from Architecture: We do a
lot of small group tutoring. When we take the students to
very exciting buildings downtown, we do so to make students
understand what goes behind the mind of the building’s
architect as a vehicle for their own personal design method,
and understand everything from building systems to architectural
control concepts. This doesn’t seem to be too problematic,
until you get the traffic noise, the rain, and interested
strangers who think you are a tourist guide. The thing about
teaching architecture students – we can impart knowledge,
understanding, critical thinking wonderfully – the students
can speak very well, but they cannot translate a concept into
form, synthesise a solution, and relate space, form and idea.
To do that, we have studio groups that range from 5 final
year students to 20 first year students. Size does matter
when each student has very different levels of ability and
perception. Then it’s a 1:1 to cue in to know what each
is able to do and what he needs to understand more. If you
do that, it’s a lot of time. I find that from a 1:1,
1 architect tutor to 9 students, you can get quality stuff.
Anything beyond that is a struggle.
Participant from Science: Besides tutorials,
other opportunities for small group interaction should occur.
Tutorials are useful, but there are limits because of constraints,
facilities. Even the 1-hour slot, and effectively you know
it’s only 40, 45 minutes – because we give them
time to rush off to another session, and sometimes they are
also late from the previous one. How much can you do? So we
have to promote more interaction outside of tutorials. There
should be some flexibility, whether I have a once-a-week tutorial
or I actually have it once a fortnight with each tutorial
being one-and-a-half hours. I’m also wondering with
the core curriculum and the new admission requirements coming
in, how will things change?
CCT: Not necessarily. I think with Core
Curriculum, yes. With the rest, probably not, because our
student population is about 20,000 and still increasing. It’s
unlikely that we will be able, for example, to do away with
large lecture theatres, large groups of students taking courses,
and replace them with small group teaching. Let’s say
even with 25 per group, the number of staff members you need
to increase to meet that demand is going to be tremendous,
30, 40% over current figures I think. If we increase the number
suddenly, the quality of teaching staff will go down –
which we must avoid at all costs. In fact the quality of teaching
staff has to improve. So because of that, a huge increase
in the number is unlikely, at least not immediately. We’ll
probably have to start with the model of many state universities
in the US and see how it can be modified. If you look at Berkeley,
it has more than 30,000 undergraduate students, and maybe
10,000, 12,000 graduate students who teach a lot of its lower
level undergraduate courses.
Core Curriculum, however, is different. It will be a special
programme, catering to a relatively small number of students,
maybe 1000. With 1000 students, I think we can cope with small
group teaching for Core Curriculum. But if we are talking
about 20,000 students, all taught in the way that Core Curriculum
will do, then the pressure on the teaching staff will be too
great to handle. So we will probably have to take in more
graduate students and then get CDTL to train these students
on the art of teaching. Of course it is a tremendous task.
We know many people have voiced complaints on how professors
at big state universities teach. Many of them teach only upper
level undergraduate or graduate level courses and forget about
the freshmen, and leave the teaching to the graduate assistants
who do a marvellously bad job – maybe language problem,
lack of experience etc. We will have to tackle that. To be
realistic, there does not seem to me to be other ways. At
this point, we’re talking about upgrading the quality
of the university, competing in the first league. To do that,
the first step is to keep on increasing the quality of the
teaching staff. You cannot have size and quality – very
Participant: Can I just add to that? I
think small group learning or teaching is a means to get students
into that kind of learning mode that to us at the university
is important. Basically, we’re worried about students
not being able to get into that learning mode. So maybe at
the First Year level, more resources and energy should be
devoted to make them unlearn old habits and get them into
that kind of learning mode you desire. Then once we get that
going, then in the Second, Third Year onwards, they would
have been used to that stuff and we can lessen off. So we
don’t have to have the same amount of resources for
CCT: I think it is a good point. Actually,
some universities make it a policy that the best teachers
shall teach the first year students. This is something we
ought to do here as well. In other words, get students set
in the right direction from the first day they enter university,
give them a pep talk, right? And then second day, it’s
small group teaching etc. I think currently many upper level
courses, the honours level for Science and Arts Faculties,
are already conducted in small groups. But the question is,
suppose we concentrate our energy on the First Year, what
do we do with the subsequent years? Do we just say that OK,
after that, you just do whatever you want to do? Will the
culture that the students acquire in the First Year, somehow
dissipate from Second Year onwards? By the time they graduate,
they’re back to square one – the whole purpose
is then defeated. So ideally we want small group teaching
in as many years as possible. Can we achieve this? Maybe not
for every course, but hopefully, for a sufficient number courses,
the core of courses, we can do that – I think it will
Participant from CELC: Something discussed
a lot in big universities like Harvard and Princeton is that
the teaching of writing across the curriculum as writing is
not just the prerogative of the English Department. It’s
a means to learning, to discovering new ideas, for students
to learn to organise ideas and put it into his own words.
Now CELC has been associated mainly with small group teaching
all along. One of the methods that my colleagues and I have
found effective in small group teaching is the use of Dialogue
Journal, which is especially good for quiet students. After
each small group session, they go back and reflect on the
teaching; they either discuss their impressions or write them
down in the Dialogue Journal. Through this writing, the ability
of the students to write, to organise ideas, and to think
improves. The rapport between the teacher and the students
also becomes very close. They are then more forthcoming in
the discussions because they feel that the teacher knows exactly
where their strengths and weaknesses are.