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
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
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
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