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As part of the Professional Development Programme (Teaching) organised by CDTL, groups of participants work on research projects related to teaching and learning. This issue of CDTL Brief presents some findings from two PDP-T research projects completed in November 2002.

May 2003, Vol. 6, No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Student Perceptions of Teachers, Courses and Classmates at NUS
Assistant Professor Eric C. Thompson
Department of Sociology

Let’s start with the good news: your students don’t hate you. Or at least, NUS students don’t hate their teachers in general. They think of them as friendly, approachable, helpful, knowledgeable, hardworking, interesting, dedicated, caring and patient. At worst, teachers are perceived as boring.

These findings are drawn from a survey of 202 NUS undergraduates from third-year courses in Economics, Sociology, Japanese Studies and Law conducted in October 2002. Data were collected (mostly via the Integrated Virtual Learning Environment) by asking students to free-list the perceived characteristics of NUS teachers, courses and students.

Free-listing is a method for collecting linguistic elements within a semantic domain. A free-listing task asks respondents to list all the words that come to mind to describe a particular type of thing (a domain). The main advantage of this method is to elicit ‘emic’ or insider terms from a particular group. The underlying theory of semantic domain analysis is that our perceptions of the world can only be given meaning through language, and therefore the content and structure of the stuff we have available to us (e.g. words) to describe a given type of thing has a significant bearing on how we think about that thing and our relationship to it.

This paper describes the structure and significance of three semantic domains in terms of what they suggest about how students relate to their teachers, classmates and courses. In addition, some interesting differences related to gender and talkativeness will be examined.

Characteristics of Teachers, Courses and Students

The structure of semantic domains can be represented and analysed in a number of ways. For this paper, we are simply going to look at the frequency of appearance and correspondence of meaning among the domain terms. Beyond the fact that the semantic domain used by students to describe teachers at NUS is overwhelmingly positive, the structure has interesting characteristics. The terms in this domain appear to describe at least three important dimensions of the meaning of teachers to students, which we will call the supportive relationship dimension (Friendly, Approachable, Helpful, Caring, Patient), the intellectual dimension (Knowledgeable, Boring, Interesting), and the effort dimension (Hardworking, Dedicated) (see Table 1).

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the structure of this domain is that three terms, all in the supportive relationship dimension—Friendly, Approachable, Helpful—appear all at basically the same frequency (approximately 27.5%) and at a significantly higher frequency than other terms (18% or less). There also appear to be far more terms related to this dimension than to the intellectual and effort dimensions. One common interpretation of such data is that terms appearing most frequently in a domain are the most significant—i.e. they matter the most to members of the group. This would provide strong support to the claim that what students care about most is the supportive relationship their teachers provide. The intellect and effort of teachers are important, but clearly secondary to the supportive relationship. The intellectual dimension also appears to be slightly more significant than the effort dimension. Sadly, of the main things students perceive about teachers, the teacher’s work and dedication are relatively low on the list.



The semantic domain students use to represent courses also appears to have at least three significant dimensions, which in this case we could call the interest dimension (Interesting, Boring, Fun), the challenge dimension (Difficult, Heavy, Tough, Demanding), and value dimension (Limited, Useful, Broad) (see Table 2). With regard to courses, the interest dimension far outweighs all other dimensions in the semantic domain. Interesting appears more often in students’ lists (49%) than Boring (31.5%). But more importantly, this dimension as a whole is far more important to students than the challenge or value of courses. The challenge courses pose to students—whether they are Difficult, Heavy, Tough or Demanding—also appears more important than their value.

When students characterise themselves, the dimensions that appear significant are what we might classify as an effort dimension (Hardworking, Stressed, Lazy, Busy), a supportive relationship dimension (Friendly, Selfish, Helpful, Kiasu), and an intellectual dimension (Smart, Intelligent, Boring) (see Table 3). While the effort dimension (represented by Hardworking) appears to be the most significant of the three dimensions, followed by the supportive relationship dimension and the intellectual dimension, in this case the distinction in terms of which of these dimensions takes priority is not nearly as clear as it is with teachers and courses. The top three terms in this domain—Hardworking, Friendly, Smart—each comes from a different dimension of the overall domain.

Differences among Students

Data collected on gender and other characteristics of the respondents allows for some comparison among students. Although there are interesting differences, we should also keep in mind that there are also significant similarities among students. For example, while there are gender differences, the general dimensions of the characteristics of teachers, courses and students hold constant across gender. As a whole, for both male and female students, the supportive dimension of teachers and interest dimension of courses are of primary importance. Similarly, the effort dimension of student life is more significant than other dimensions for both females and males. Such similarities are important to keep in mind, as the gender differences are explored below.

Female students were twice as likely (20%) as males (9.5%) to use Boring to describe teachers. In contrast, male students were twice as likely (14%) as females (7%) to list Interesting as a characteristic of teachers. While this seems significant in itself, the finds get more intriguing when we see that females are much more likely (55%) than males (36%) to describe NUS courses as Interesting and slightly less likely (29.5%) than males (36%) to describe courses as Boring. To look at this data another way, males were about equally likely to list Interesting and Boring as characteristics of teachers and courses (though they use the terms more frequently with regard to courses). However, females were much more likely to describe teachers as Boring and courses as Interesting! It should be noted at the same time, that females listed the term, Dedicated, as a characteristic of teachers far more frequently than males.

Along with gender and other demographic characteristics, the survey asked students to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 7 as to how often they ‘speak up in class’ (one idea of the survey being to examine factors that might affect class discussion). Based on these answers, students were classified into ‘Less than Average Talkers’ (T1 group), ‘Average Talkers’ (T2 group), and ‘More than Average Talkers’ (T3 group). Comparing these students’ free lists reveals some interesting contrasts, suggesting differing expectations of their teachers and somewhat different perceptions of courses and students.

The most talkative T3 group places much more emphasis on the effort of teachers than other students, listing Hardworking more frequently than any other characteristic. Conversely, the less talkative students place more emphasis on the supportive relationship of teachers and are much less likely to list Hardworking or Dedicated as characteristics of teachers. While students across all these groups use most of the same terms to describe courses, one notable contrast is that the least talkative students are more likely to characterise courses as Tough, whereas the most talkative students are more likely to characterise courses as Demanding.

With regard to students, the more talkative students again stress the effort dimension (Hardworking, Stressed, Lazy) while the less talkative students stress the supportive relationship dimension (Friendly, Helpful). Also of note, more and less talkative students appear to use different terms that carry similar meaning (Smart and Intelligent; Selfish and Kiasu). In these cases, less talkative students use the shorter and more colloquial terms, which might indicate a difference in their general comfort with the non-colloquial English of the classroom.

Discussion and Implications for Teaching

Keeping in mind that we are talking about a fairly simple analysis of a small sample, the data do suggest some implications for teaching practices and relationships between teachers and students. Teachers should be aware that in the classroom they are encountering something of a clash of cultures between themselves and their students. The classroom and university mean very different things to teachers and students.

While no parallel survey was carried out among teachers, it might be expected that NUS teachers would produce very differently structured semantic domains. If the small test-run done by the members of this research group is anything to go by, teachers would give much more weight to the effort and intellectual dimension when describing themselves and less—even much less—to the sort of terms which stress the supportive relationship with students. Judging by most conversations I have with colleagues, teachers see their jobs as a struggle to impart some sort of knowledge to their students. We have a strong sense of both our efforts and the intellectual dimension of the academic staff. And most of us probably would say that while it might be nice to be friendly to students, it is not our job to be friendly.

Be that as it may, this supportive dimension of our relationship with our students is what matters most to them, with the exception of a relatively small minority who are the most ‘talkative’ and engaged in the classes we teach. And even for them, the supportive relationship dimension is quite important. To be effective teachers, it might be our responsibility to take this into consideration as part of our job when providing a positive learning environment for students.

The differences between female and male students are a bit harder to interpret and to draw on for classroom practices. There are at least two interpretations (not necessarily mutually exclusive) of the gender differences found in the data. One is that the differences may have to do with gendered use of language. For instance, ‘Dedicated’ may simply be a word that women are more likely to use in general than men. Likewise, the more frequent use of ‘Interesting’ in describing courses may have to do with gendered differences in providing positive feedback.

Another interpretation is that these differences may reflect certain classroom dynamics. Is it the case that our female students, while enthusiastic about Interesting courses, are let down by Boring teachers? Is it that NUS teachers do not relate to and spark interest among female students as well as male students? This would seem to correspond to other classroom studies which have established that male students get called on more often in class and that teachers have a tendency to use techniques (e.g. metaphors and examples) that appeal more to the male experience than female experience. While the results of this survey cannot tell us exactly why we see this difference, it may be worth reflecting on why NUS teachers in general appear to bore their female students more than male students. Perhaps with some effort we can make ourselves as interesting as our courses.

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Excelling at Teaching and Research: A Preliminary Study of Best Practices
Student Perceptions of Teachers, Courses and Classmates at NUS