This is an edited transcript
of A/Prof Tans lecture/discussion with participants
of the Professional Development Programme session that CDTL
conducted on 21 February 2001. Through this session, A/Prof
Tan talked about some of his personal experiences of conducting
large-group teaching as well as invited participants to share
their own experiences and raise any questions that they may
A/Prof Tan Cheng Han (TCH): Can I first ask what you
would consider to be a large group?
Participant * : 400Thats the normal
size of our classes.
Participant: More than 50.
Participant: More than 30.
Participant: More than 10.
Participant: It depends on different courses. 20 may
be a large group for some of us.
TCH: Im glad you raised that point. But can
I ask, for the gentleman who said more than 10, why do you
consider that the threshold size?
Participant: In our setting, its difficult if
there are more than 10 medical students examining 1 patient.
TCH: In the Medical Faculty where there is a lot of
clinical work, I suppose it is hard to imagine 400 doctors
and medical students congregating around one single patient.
So for any clinical work in that context to be meaningful,
the group may well have to be 10 or less.
Participant: I think more than 10 is considered large.
If you have less than 10, you can have more active participation
Participant: For practical considerations in my area
(i.e. real estate), I dont need to have 10 or less.
Our course is more practice oriented. We usually take a maximum
of 50 from which we form smaller groups. In class, students
gain a better perception of market reality (where a sale of
land or property usually receives 10 to 15 tenders) when there
are more sub-groups available to generate different approaches
to solving set problems. If you have a size of about 20, we
can have at most about 4 or 5 groups. When students have 4
or 5 views, this may not reflect what really happens in the
Participant: The limit of 50 is not clear-cut; its
usually around 40, 30-plus. If you handle 50 students, you
have good eye contact; you view all their facial expressions;
you understand students better from how they react to you;
you may also have enough time for after-class discussions.
Above 50, this will be difficult. 50 is quite a reasonable
size for general engineering classes. If under 10, that is
a small group: you can interact more with students, discuss
deeply and get individual views. With more than 50, that is
TCH: Good; 2 very important points. No. 1: more interaction.
The quality of your interaction with the students increases
the smaller the group is. No. 2: qualitative contact. You
can spend more quality time with each individual student and
get to know each better. The gentleman who said 400: can you
explain your context?
Participant: We have 2 formats of courses in Business.
One is lecture and tutorial, normally with more than 400.
The other is for the seminar courses with below 30. We usually
have no choice and have to lecture to more than that.
.....although we've said that the difference between
a large group and a small group depends on the interactive
nature of the class, this doesn't mean you cannot have interactive/active
learning in the context of a large class.
TCH: It seems you are circumscribed somewhat by the
circumstances you find yourself in and a lot depends on the
course and what you intend to achieve ultimately. If you want
better interaction for example, then obviously the larger
the group, the less interaction you will have with each individual
student. If you want more active participation, how do you
get meaningful participation from each student in a class
of 500 or 1000? It is not impossible. But clearly the larger
the number, the more difficult it is to draw that out from
the class. In the end, what is important is not so much the
absolute number, but the quality of contact you can have with
individual students to make them more interactive in the learning
process. The larger the class size, the more difficult it
Now I want to ask you another question. Let us say that I
am standing here this morning and just giving you a straight
lecture. How long do you think you will listen to me before
your concentration is broken either momentarily or for a longer
period of time?
Participant: 30 to 45 minutes
Participant: 12 minutes.
Participant: It really depends on how interesting
your talk is, how personally involved I am with the topic
or material, and how exciting your presentation style is.
Each persons attention span is different.
Participant: 40 minutes.
Participant: Ive had very bad teachers before,
so I can concentrate for 1 hour.
Participant: 10 to 15 minutes.
Participant: 20 minutes.
TCH: 20This appears to be the more normative
figure. Studies indeed have shown that generally a persons
concentration span is about 10 to 15 minutes on average. I
think all of us have at some point in time encountered really
bad and boring teachers so that after 5 to 10 minutes, we
switch off and we never switch back on again. I wonder if
this happens when we lecture to our students too. These days,
many of my students bring laptops into the lecture. And I
often wonder whether they are actually taking down what Im
saying or playing computer games or surfing, because occasionally
I hear a funny beep coming from their computers. This is the
reality now. What implications does it have for the traditional
lecture where the lecturer stands in front of the class and
expounds for 45 minutes at a stretch? Id like you to
take 5 minutes to think about it yourself or discuss it with
(Pause) Now would anyone like to share
anything arising from your own personal reflections?
Participant: Channel resistance increases with time.
TCH: Absolutely. Anything else?
Participant: You have to get students to participate.
You could talk for 10 minutes; after that, you could create
a change in the traditional lecture style and just speak directly
with them. You ask them a question, get their participation
and then move on again. I think you have to keep doing that.
TCH: Thats a good point. Because of the short
attention span of most students, you need, at some point in
time, to draw them into the learning process as well: for
example, by putting a question to them and asking them to
think about it and discuss it amongst themselves.
At this juncture, I want to stress a point: although weve
said that the difference between a large group and a small
group depends on the interactive nature of the class, this
doesnt mean you cannot have interactive/active learning
in the context of a large class. In fact, it is vital to have
some element of interactive/active learning as the traditional
lecture itself is not terribly effective as a students
concentration span is not as long as we would like it to be.
Just because your students are taking down what you are saying,
does that mean they are following you? You know how it is:
they blank out and copy robotically. They are not thinking
about what is being said because they are just concerned with
capturing your words so that they can re-read them later.
But if that is what a lecture is all about, isnt that
an unproductive, unconstructive use of the 45 minutes that
you have? If all you expect your students to do is to take
down what it is that you are saying, wont that purpose
be primarily served by giving them notes in advance? Obviously
I agree that you can project what it is you are saying and
if you can make it interesting it may inspire a certain passion
in the subject. But thats only up to a point, right?
Participant: Then were wasting our time.
TCH: Exactly. Are we really needed? What is that value
that we can add to our students beyond what they can find
in textbooks or if they go into a reputable site on the Internet?
Participant: Even in the traditional model, you can
ask a question. You cannot ask a book a question, you cannot
ask the Internet a question.
TCH: Agreed. But how many of your students will actually,
during the lecture, put up their hands and say: Sir,
I dont quite understand that point, or It
doesnt quite match something I read somewhere. Could
you please try to reconcile the two? Generally, our
students dont do this.
Participant: Probably none. They just dont take
advantage of it. But Im saying that its there.
TCH: If we make it part and parcel of our lecture
to encourage them to ask questions, and we make it very clear
that questions are eminently welcome, then perhaps I agree.
Unfortunately in a traditional setting, this is unlikely.
An Engineering colleague once said to me: We have real
problems when we have small-group classes. You can pose questions
to students and they refuse to say anything. Its like
trying to extract blood out of stone. By implication,
he was saying that Law lecturers are lucky. So I replied:
Im sad to say that in the Law Faculty we also
face the same problem although perhaps to a lesser degree.
I was quite heartened when a visiting eminent Oxford Law professor
said: Your students here remind me a lot of Scottish
students. When I teach in Scotland, many students refuse to
say anything and you have to take great pains to draw them
out. The cultural aspect is one thing. But we have to
do what we can to encourage students and draw them out. OK,
any other thoughts?
Many people think that I'm quite comfortable lecturing.
But I will never be so comfortable as to walk into a class
without any sort of road map. For all of us, it is good
teaching practice to have a road map....It is important
to have a point here and there to remind you what it is
you intend to cover.
Participant: In previous days, some lecturers used
to have problems: they would forget their train of thought
when someone stands up and asks questions. These days with
PowerPoint, we can always look back and see what we are going
to say next. So you do not have as much anxiety or stress.
TCH: Let me take this up. Many people think that Im
quite comfortable lecturing. But I will never be so comfortable
as to walk into a class without any sort of road map. For
all of us, it is good teaching practice to have a road map.
You dont have to jot down everything in such great detail
that youre reading from it. It is important to have
a point here and there to remind you what it is you intend
Participant: In view of the lack of concentration,
we should integrate both lecture and tutorial. Make the tutorial
a follow-up of the lecture. Come up with controversial issues
during the lecture and let the students think further for
the tutorial if they are unable to answer then. Once you pose
them some issues, their minds start to work and they will
be more active.
Participant: All of us have seen examples of good
lecturers who have a way of engaging the class. Perhaps they
can get comfortable with however big the class is. And they
do have a way of making it come alive in the way that they
act out the lecture. Its not just verbal bombardment.
Its also all the faculties that are involved in transmitting
that knowledge. Even in a one-way transmission, they have
found a way of using all forms of communicative meanstone
of voice, pace, tempo, rhythm, musicality, body language,
etc.and that cannot obviously be obtained from paper,
the Net or books. Maybe if you can webcast the lecture, its
possible. But still there is this dimension of reality that
the students can get from even a traditional lecture format.
Participant: You complain of students not asking questions.
But I have another experience. Once in China when I was teaching
in a class of about 100 students, so many students wanted
to ask questions that I couldnt control the situation.
And the students complained they had no opportunity to ask
questions. So how many questions can we take in a large class?
TCH: Actually, thats a nice problem to have,
compared to the usual. But I agree with you: you dont
want a case where every minute or so someone is putting up
a hand to ask a question. Obviously as you go along, you have
to lay the ground rules. If it is a question that arises out
of what you have said in the lecture, fair enough. But it
shouldnt be something that they may have been thinking
from 2 lectures ago and they now want to raise that issue
when you are actually talking about something else. So when
it comes to things like this, you can say: Why dont
you ask me these questions after the class? In other
words, make yourself available as an alternative to answering
Participant: Maybe all the questions are relevant
to the topic.
TCH: In this context, you may have to think of restructuring
some of your material because it may be that your material
is raising a lot of very interesting questions and you may
want to spend more time on some of these interesting issues
and leave out other less controversial areas. Alternatively,
you may need to integrate your lectures with your tutorials
so that many of these issues can be discussed within the context
of the tutorial.
Participant: Im from Architecture and Im
not happy about the way lecture theatres are designed. Especially
for my seminar classes, the way the seating is arranged actually
puts you on the spot as a traditional lecturer and the students
just sit there and listen. So do you have any suggestions
in effecting good discussions in that sort of space?
TCH: Not being an architect myself, I havent
really thought about it. But I think youve raised a
very good point: an appropriate seating arrangement can make
it more conducive for interactive discussions to take place.
Prof K.P. Mohanan (Deputy Director, CDTL): Actually
there is a committee looking at this problem for new LTs in
the future and they are taking into consideration the various
possible kinds of small-group interactions in large classes.
They are designing lecture spaces in which people can turn
around and form groups of 5 or 6.
Participant: There are some students who ask questions
when we lecture. But the lecture theatres are large here,
and even though there is a microphone, we cant hear
what the students say when they sit at the back. What can
TCH: Its a problem I must confess Im not
familiar with because in Law the largest class is probably
no more than 200. If a student in the back of the class talks
loudly enough, he/she can make himself/herself heard where
I am. What I can suggest is this: you need to let students
know that you welcome questions. So ask for microphones to
be placed strategically at parts of the lecture hall. You
can even have a couple of freestanding mikes that you know
can be passed through the crowd to someone in the back if
it is difficult for that person to reach the mikes. Even if
no one uses the mikes that often, such arrangements signal
to the crowd that you welcome questions.
Participant: As we change our methods of teaching
and make the transition towards new styles of lecturing, how
can we stimulate active participation in students still used
to the traditional format?
TCH: There are certain stylistic things you have to
keep in mind when lecturing. For example, you should make
eye contact. If you are looking elsewhere while talking to
your students, they will think you are not interested in them
and youd rather be somewhere else. Yet you shouldnt
make it too obvious, because you will distract them. Some
people pace nervously up and down while talking and that can
be disturbing. Some movement is good because if you stand
still robotically, everyone will be sidetracked wondering
when you will move next. Hand gestures can also be terribly
distracting, depending on the context. Some people use hand
gestures selectively to punctuate a point: there is some impact
there because the hand gestures draw you back into the lecture.
Varying the pace of your voice is important too. Some people
speak in a monotonous tone all the time. After a while, all
of us will switch off at least momentarily. So sometimes raising
and lowering the pitch of your voice to emphasise a point
is a good thing: it draws the audience back.
Use audio-visual aids to draw the audiences attention
to something else aside from the speaker and break the monotony
of only looking at and listening to the speaker only for 45
minutes at a stretch. By focusing on such aids, the audience
can be drawn back into the lecture again. But you will notice,
I am notorious for not using audio-visual aids. There are
some people who prefer to emphasise the style of presentation.
If you are comfortable with that, you may not need to use
audio-visual aids quite as much. Also, be conscious of the
dangers of using audio-visual aids: a senior colleague of
mine said that in the very year she started to use PowerPoint,
her student review grades went down through the floor. She
was putting in so much effort to make the slides attractive
that she omitted what ultimately makes for a good lecture.
So think of how to present your material: that ultimately
is more important than any audio-visual aid.
Ultimately, preparation is most vital. Preparation
doesn't simply that I have all my notes here and so I can
just come before you and start talking to you. It's also
putting myself in the audience's shoes. Where are they coming
from? What are their needs? What are they likely to feel
Ultimately, preparation is most vital. Preparation doesnt
simply mean that I have all my notes here and so I can just
come before you and start talking to you. Its also putting
myself in the audiences shoes. Where are they coming
from? What are their needs? What are they likely to feel confused
about? Thinking through the material, how do I present this
point? Should I use this analogy to buttress this confusing
point? Should I link this with that other preceding principle
that I talked about two weeks ago so that they can see the
connection? Do I link this with some other subject so that
they see how these subjects are also inter-related? By preparing,
you not only have the subject matter there, but you also actually
think of what you are doing. You have a plan.
You need to affirm your students because people are
very shy. Someone who raises his/her hand in a class of
800 risks being thought a fool. Whether the question is
foolish or not, I don't care. I give credit to the person
who is prepared to ask.
In the US, many Law teachers teach using the Socratic method.
They stand in front of the class and ask: Have you read
the case of A vs. B? Tell me what are the facts of that case.
A student will reply. What did this judge say?
Someone else will reply. Do you agree with the judgement
here? Are the reasons here consistent with the earlier Supreme
Court decision of C vs. D? The whole lecture is conducted
this way. It is not really a straight lecture; but its
very interactive and the students learn from each other. At
the end, the students will have to draw from what has been
discussed and learn from it. One of my colleagues, who studied
at a top US law school, came back to NUS and tried this method.
It failed miserably, although I thought it was a very good
So first, you must think about your audience. Second, if
you want to make classes more interactive, youve got
to slowly ease students into it. You must explain to them:
Look, I am doing this because this is what I want to
achieve. I think this will be good for you. Sometimes
we dont tell the class and we expect them to just fall
in line and understand what we are doing. They dont
To address the question posed tangentially, my style of teaching
is not very traditional. Many Law teachers will stand in front
of class and set out the casesvery organised, beautifully
done. That delivery can inspire people to want to know more
about the subject and there is nothing necessarily wrong with
this method. But I dont teach at all in that way. I
say to students: As you are all in Law School, I assume
that you can read English as well as I can. Therefore I can
leave you to read much of the primary material yourself. But
I will help you: I will give you a fairly good reading list
so you know what are the things that you ought to look at.
But I am not going to hold your hand and bring you through
every principle that you can get from reading a book. What
I intend to do is focus on difficult areas and topical matters.
I will put questions to you that I want you to think about
and these issues can be discussed in tutorials. I make
them think about it. Sometimes, I share my own thoughts with
them. I tell them: Look, this is my view. But others
have taken different views. So dont take my view as
the gospel truth. Instead, reflect upon it and formulate your
own thoughts. Also, read the views of other academic commentators.
Or sometimes I pose questions to students and ask them to
think about an issue; I may make them take a break and discuss
the issue with their neighbours. Then Ill ask them for
their views; Ill take an occasional poll: How
many of you think the result was right? This makes them
active participants in the learning process.
I think you too can do these things in a large group. But
especially for new teachers, go slower. When I was a younger
lecturer, I would concentrate a lot on the stylistic part
and I made sure I knew my material well. Those are your initial
concerns and it is understandable if in the first year or
so you want to concentrate on that. As you become more experienced,
try to go beyond that. Try to use a lecture as a forum where
you can draw students out. Ultimately when you make them active
participants, you are, as the saying goes, teaching people
to fish, to find their food, rather than giving it to them.
When they leave the University, you will not be there to hold
their hands, so theyve got to find their own feet. And
youve got to start helping them when they are in NUS
to do this.
Let me make a few more points. First, it is very important
to be natural. When I give a class, I try to speak as conversationally
as possible to my students. Theres no need to stand
in front to them, assume the mantel of some learned guru and
speak in an authoritative manner. Just be yourself. When you
talk to your friends, Im sure you speak quite naturally
and in a very animated form. If you can reproduce that for
your classes, I think you will be very successful because
people will relate and react to that.
Second, try to connect with your students. I always let my
students know subtly that I am concerned about them. This
is why I often ask them: Do you have any questions?
If you have any questions, dont hesitate to put up your
hands. When someone asks a question, I usually will
say at the end I think that is an excellent question, Im
glad you raised it and I will deal with it. You need to affirm
your students because people are very shy. Someone who raises
his/her hand in a class of 800 risks being thought a fool.
Whether the question is foolish or not, I dont care.
I give credit to the person who is prepared to ask. I also
tell my students: Im available for consultation
even though Im not your personal tutor. Come see me
if there is something in the lecture that bugs you.
Because weve got 15 minutes before the next group comes,
I remain in class and take my time to pack up my notes so
that students who want can immediately come and ask me questions.
So these are some of the things I think you need to do to
connect with your students. If they think you are a concerned
and conscientious teacher, no matter how inadequate you feel,
they will give you a lot of credit for that and you will do
much better on your student reviews than you would have thought
Third, learn from your mistakes. Someone once asked me: Should
I begin a lecture by telling a joke? Now we all know
some people have got what it takes to tell a joke, others
dont. I never really feel that I do. So I never start
by telling a joke. Because when your joke falls flat, your
whole class will become very tense because they will feel
guilty that they did not laugh and they will wonder when your
next joke is coming. You will also be tense because you will
think: Why didnt they laugh? Whats wrong
with me? So dont. But in the course of the class,
maybe you will say something meaningful that also happens
to be funny. For example, I didnt set out consciously
to make you all laugh. But in the process of this session,
you all have laughed and Im very glad for it because
it helps to ease the tension, it gets everyone to relax, its
also a good distraction.
Last, but not least, dont worry about your first lecture
or class. No matter how bad you think it is, as long as you
prepare, you should be OK. For example, one of the first times
I gave a public talk was at an NUS Welcome Convention for
new students in Orientation Week. I was in the Forum: in front
of me there were about 1000 students and behind me were the
Vice-Chancellor, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the Deans of
all faculties, the Registrar, Director of the Personnel Department,
etc. I was so nervous that I couldnt stop shivering
while I was giving the talk. But you learn from these things.
No. 1: I always have a podium in front of me when I give a
talk so that in case I shiver, it wont be so noticeable.
No. 2: its important to wear baggy clothes so that when
you do shiver it is not so obvious. Leaving aside the levity,
the more important point is that what got me through that
talk was the fact I had prepared for it. I knew exactly what
it was I was going to say. No matter how nervous I was, that
gave me a great deal of confidence. Therefore preparation
is ultimately the key.
* Responses are from different