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
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
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
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
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 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.