when information is freely exchanged between three or more
Research has shown that students build better knowledge and
understanding through discussion. Classroom discussion can
help students clarify issues and relate new knowledge to prior
knowledge. Discussion also elicits higher levels of thinking
than the traditional lecture approach and helps students to
retain knowledge. Finally, discussion may even help to inspire
Having taught in NUS for over three years now, I have to
admit that the most challenging part of lecturing both a small
group and a larger setting is to make sure that students stay
engaged during the exercise. One of the ways in which I make
my lectures more interactive is to alternate classical lecturing
with brief intervals of mini-discussion for the students to
reflect on what I said. By doing so, I hope to sustain the
students’ interest for the topic, make them feel that
sitting through the lectures is not a waste of their time
and selfishly be reassured that I am not wasting my time.
How to integrate discussion during the lecture?
It is not always easy to successfully punctuate classical
lecturing with mini-discussions. Facilitating such lectures
also requires a lot more energy than conducting a non-interactive
lecture. To set the stage for such interactive lectures, it
is important to be physically close to the students. The setting
of the University’s recently renovated lecture theatres,
though state-of-the-art, does not bring the lecturers physically
closer to the students. Hence, I usually lecture in front
of the stage, where I can be near to the students. My loud
voice helps keep everybody, especially the sleeping students
attentive and awake.
Although I sometimes have to wait for a lecture or two and/or
challenge the students a few times before I finally get any
answers to my questions, patience invariably pays. I believe
this is because students need time to know their teacher to
feel confident that they can talk without ‘loosing face’.
When the students begin to realise that I am approachable
and trust that I will never put them down, they will start
to open up.
In addition, it is important to be adaptable. I adapt my
delivery style to suit the response of the class. For example,
I tend to encourage dialogues for a very responsive class
but with a quieter class, I adopt a more directive approach
by indulging in question-answer sessions with the students.
Therefore, I do not think that I can deliver exactly the same
lecture twice. The content may be similar but how engaging
the lecture will be will depend on class participation and
on my own energy level.
Does the discussion always have to take place in
the presence of the lecturer?
The most important step in trying to deliver an engaging
lecture is to promote discussion. However, the best discussion
may not necessarily take place between the lecturer and the
students. Hence, an alternative is to promote peer-discussion
through appropriate exercises. During Term II of Academic
Year 2002/2003, I gave students taking a 4th year level module
a home assignment that they enjoyed immensely. The task required
the students to interpret scientific data to draw the model
of a particular cell death pathway, which contradicted the
dogma they learnt during the lectures. My aim in giving this
assignment was to teach students how to interpret data and
to be open-minded to accept results that may not exactly fit
what they had learnt in class. I had told them that they could
do the assignment in groups. However, I warned them that I
wanted everybody to write their reports in their own words.
The response to this exercise was very good and it really
promoted discussion as indicated in the following comment
I received from one of the students:
“The course was tremendously exciting.
I’m sure many of my peers feel the same as we often
discuss the latest lectures over lunch. As for the assignment,
it was a nice change to be able to apply what we have learnt
instead of repeating facts. As you suggested, we did have
group discussions (but no copying!) and this proved to be
very rewarding in terms of brainstorming and bonding with
I was happy that in addition to helping students learn, the
exercise was able to stimulate interaction among students.
In addition, it demonstrated that an appropriate exercise
triggered constructive discussion among the students without
requiring the presence of a lecturer.
Another valuable tool to stimulate discussion is the use
of the Internet. Whenever I feel dissatisfied with the level
of student participation during a lecture, I would encourage
the students to email their questions to me following the
lecture. Suddenly, with the anonymity of the computer, I find
my students very talkative. Since answering individual emails
requires considerable time commitment, my strategy is to collect
all the questions that I have received during the week and
answer them collectively before the beginning of the next
lecture. This strategy works quite well. Indeed, going through
the queries with the whole group usually sets up a lively
discussion that does not end until the students are satisfied
with the explanations.
In conclusion, I would like to stress the need to make our
students discuss. Not only is discussion critical to learning,
it teaches self-confidence as well. Group discussion can be
triggered in many ways and may not necessarily require the
presence of the lecturer. In the United States where classroom
lectures are often supplemented by classroom discussions,
students are expected to contribute to the discussion in the
classroom. Questioning or challenging the teacher is viewed
as a healthy sign of interest, attention and independent thinking.
On the contrary, if you sit in silence, it is likely to be
assumed that you are not interested in what is said in the
class or that you do not understand the content. I do not
think the same conclusion can be drawn of the NUS students.
Some factors inherent to Singapore may be the reason why students
are not always comfortable to discuss freely in front of a
class. However, from my experience if the teacher is patient,
understanding and uses innovative teaching techniques, NUS
students can be as involved in the learning exercise as students
elsewhere in the world. One of the key things is to help students
to trust the teacher; teachers have to convince our students
that our goal is to help and not to judge them.
1Caughlan, Samantha. (2001).
‘Classroom Discussion: Teachers’ Perspectives
on Obstacles and Strategies’. English Update, a newsletter
of The National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement,
operated by the University at Albany, State University of
New York in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Fall 2001 issue, pp. 4–5. http://cela.albany.edu/newslet/fall01/caughlin.htm. (Last accessed: 29 September 2003).