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Participants of Professional Development Programme (Teaching) worked on research projects related to teaching and learning. This issue of CDTL Brief presents the first instalment of Research Projects done by the batch of PDP-T participants in April 2003.

October 2003, Vol. 6, No. 10 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
A Survey of Tutorial Preparation and Participation
Assistant Professor Xixi Lu
Department of Geography
Assistant Professor Cheolbeom Park
Department of Economics

Assistant Professor Terence Sim

Department of Computer Science

Assistant Professor Antoine Vigneron

Department of Computer Science
(listed in alphabetical order)


We are new to teaching in NUS and we experienced low level of participation in tutorials. Is there anything that we can do about it? We believe that as instructors, we can influence the level of preparation and participation by carefully designing tutorials, and by adopting better pedagogical techniques. The first step towards testing our beliefs is to understand the factors that affect students’ attitudes concerning preparation and participation. Hence, we conducted a survey among our students for this purpose.


We postulated the following hypothesis:

More preparation for the tutorial increases participation.

Over a week in March 2003, the survey was conducted during regular class hours. Taking the form of a questionnaire, it consisted of 34 questions. Here are three sample questions:

This survey design was guided only by common sense, not by any rigorous scientific theory. To encourage students to be honest with their answers, the survey was done anonymously, and the instructor was not allowed to be present in the classroom. Unfortunately, due to time and resource constraints, we could not reach all our students. Only those that happened to be in class on that particular day took the survey. This resulted in a small sample size: only 54 respondents in total. This in turn means that our survey results may not be representative of the attitudes of the general student population. Other background information is shown in Table 1.


We only report some of our results here: level of preparation and participation, differences by gender and differences by module levels.

Level of preparation and participation

Figures 1 and 2 show the overall preparation and participation levels. More specifically, Figure 1 shows the percentage of respondents who prepared for tutorials, broken down by the type of preparation: reading lecture notes/journal articles (for postgraduates only)/textbook, attempting to answer some or all of the tutorial questions. Most students attempted at least one question (76%), although few read the textbook (30%). There seemed to be a preference for lecture notes over textbook (43% vs. 30%) when it comes to preparation. We conjectured that this might be because lecture notes are more concise, requiring less time to read than textbooks. The primary reason students gave for not preparing for tutorials is that they were busy with other courses. For those who prepared, they did so to learn more about the subject material.

In contrast, tutorial participation was disappointingly low, which was consistent with our observation (see Figure 2). Fewer than 35% of respondents engaged in discussions, or asked questions. Fewer still volunteered to solve problems. These findings agreed with our personal experience. More often than not, we have had to coax students to participate lest the class quickly degenerated into another lecture. The main reasons students gave for not participating were: (a) the fear of getting the wrong answer, and (b) not wanting to be perceived as a smart aleck by other students.

Figure 1: Overall preparation level
The students were asked which document they read/which
questions they attempted before going to a tutorial

Figure 2: Overall participation level.

In terms of correlation analysis, we were surprised by the low positive correlation between preparation and participation: 0.2784. This appeared to provide weak evidence for our hypothesis that those who prepare more would be more active in class.

Differences in Gender

These statistics are more interesting. Note that there were equal numbers of male and female respondents. Figure 3 shows that males and females differed most in reading and answering the tutorial questions before coming to class. Females tried to solve all the given tutorial problems twice more often than males do (67% vs. 37%). Moreover, males preferred to read the textbook (37% vs. 22%). This may be because they were less attentive in lectures than females. Unfortunately, we did not measure lecture attentiveness in our survey.

While females appeared to prepare more, the situation was reversed for participation. Male students were more active in asking and discussing questions in class. Figure 4 shows 44% versus 15% (for asking), and 44% versus 22% (for discussion). If we combine this fact with our earlier observation, it seems to say that while men prepare less than women, they nonetheless talk more in class! One wonders where the men get the knowledge to talk intelligibly. Is it a case of the empty vessel making the most noise? Note that this situation might be unrelated to the issue that we raised (namely the relationship between preparation and participation), and was more likely to be entirely due to gender difference issues. However, we did not want to consider such themes, as they were not the focus of our survey.

Differences by module levels

We next looked at the statistics by module levels to see if older students were more likely to participate compared with younger ones. Figures 5 and 6 show that they do. In these figures, we defined upperclassmen as students taking 4000-level courses and above. This agreed closely with their actual age: the 1000-level course enrolled mostly first-year undergraduates, while the upper-level courses were taken by students having had at least three years of university education. It is clear from the figures that older students were better prepared for tutorials than the younger ones, and they also participated significantly more. However, because the number of upperclassmen was less than half of the number of freshmen (16 versus 38), our result could be biased. It may also be that students do not change their attitudes over time. However, those who have the best preparation for tutorials obtain higher marks in the exams, and hence are more likely to reach the fourth year of study or enter a graduate school.

Conclusions and implications for teaching

We conclude this report with a summary of the main findings of our survey:

  • There was relatively weak correlation between tutorial preparation and participation.

  • The main reason for not preparing for tutorials was that students were busy with other courses.

  • The main reasons for not participating were: (a) the fear of getting a wrong answer, and (b) not wanting to be perceived as a smart aleck.

  • Female students appeared to be better prepared than male students, but they participated a lot less.

  • Older students prepared and participated more than younger ones.

Interestingly, we also found that the quality of teaching did not significantly affect preparation. Teaching well was only a weak reason why students prepared for tutorials (Main reason: Students recognised that they learnt more if they come better prepared.). Conversely, teaching poorly was not a reason why students did not prepare (Main reason: They were busy with other courses). This suggests that there is little we as instructors can do to influence students’ behaviour. Students are busy with other coursework partly because of university course requirements, and partly because of their priorities. However, this does require us to design a proper tutorial handout which takes consideration of available time students have apart from other academic activities. Our suggestions include the following:

1. The tutorial handouts for freshmen should start with easy questions; students don’t participate much and difficult questions will make it worse. Handouts should refer to specific parts of the lecture notes, as the students may not have read them entirely beforehand.

2. Older students usually prepare well and participate more; so the suggestion above does not apply in their case. We would recommend that handouts for older students contain more challenging questions that will encourage longer discussions and at a higher level.

3. Minimise students’ ‘fears’ (i.e. the fears of getting a wrong answer and being perceived as a smart aleck) by having smaller groups with a non-structured tutorial format and building up a close relation with students.

Our observations also suggest the following strategies while conducting the tutorial:

4. Preparation and participation are not correlated, which means that the students who participate most may not have the most useful contributions. Therefore, we recommend that the tutor initiate the discussion by asking directly a random student for the answer. Such a measure will not decrease the level of the tutorial; in addition, this allows gender (and other) bias to be corrected.

5. If a tutor would like to boost students’ participations during tutorials, ask male students to answer the first question since they prepare only for one question (it will likely be the first one), and direct the rest of your questions to female students since they tend to prepare for the whole tutorial.

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Inside this issue
Socratic Method for Engineering Education
A Survey of Tutorial Preparation and Participation
Increasing Student Participation: A Classroom Experiment