Standing in front of a class to teach a module for the first
time can be a terrifying experience. There is an exasperating
anxiety of the unknown since one is charting an untrodden
path with so many uncertainties. In such a situation, one
tends to feel nervous about the myriad details that could
possibly go wrong, although the fear does diminish with experience.
I have personally gone through such experiences many times
in my career, and must confess that even after having taught
in NUS for 20 years, I still have apprehensions about teaching
a new module.
Preparation for first lecture
When I first joined NUS as a teaching staff, I was advised
that one needs to spend about 10 hours in preparation for
every hour of lecture. While there are really no hard and
fast rules about preparing for lectures, the importance of
preparation can never be over emphasised. This is because
the more prepared a lecturer is, the more confident he/she
will be in facing the class. Therefore, I have always abided
by the unwritten rule that it is far safer to prepare more
material to teach within what the allotted time allows than
less. It is much easier to discard material that cannot be
covered within the time frame than to cook up an extra topic
on the spot if there is additional time.
I recently started teaching a module that I have never taught
before. Although I managed to teach only about 60% of what
I originally planned, the extra material was not totally wasted.
Apart from using the excess material for my research on topics
not covered in class, my rigorous planning stood me in good
stead when my students asked questions (some beyond the scope
of what was eventually covered in class). Rather than telling
the students not to bother me (since they were veering off
course), I was able to discuss with them the additional topics
and encourage the students in their meritorious habit of researching
outside the syllabus. By doing so, I was promoting creative
thinking, lifelong learning, as well as student-teacher interaction.
Thus, I have learnt that being overly prepared can bring dividends
to both the lecturer and the students.
Preparation for first tutorial
The same principle of over-preparation also holds true for
the first tutorial. I normally prepare a few extra questions
for discussion, in case there is extra time during a tutorial.
In fact, tutorials are far more unpredictable than lectures.
While the lecturer can control the time quite effectively
in lectures, how the tutorials progress often depend on the
students’ response (i.e. whether the students are actively
asking questions or not). Therefore, I have found it useful
to have on hand some questions that I can throw to the class
if nobody is in the mood to say anything. There are occasions
when I need pockets of time to revise a topic on which I have
received many queries through the module website and through
email. Such sessions can be slotted into a tutorial lesson
quite easily when there are minutes to spare. Of course, for
the benefit of the whole class, the lecturer may also address
the students’ queries during the extra time towards
the end of a lecture.
Another point that the lecturer needs to bear in mind while
preparing for a new module is the problem of assessment. The
topics covered in the module should provide sufficient scope
for setting exam or test questions, depending on whether it
is an examinable module or one with only continuous assessment
(CA). Ultimately, marks are still the workhorse of our assessment
system. A lecturer cannot simply impart knowledge, stimulate
creative thinking and instil lifelong learning among his students,
but forget about grading the students in a final exam or in
regular CA. Since assessments are compulsory, they will, to
a certain extent, affect the way we plan the syllabus and
the way in which we deliver the lectures. It is therefore,
important, during the first lecture (if possible), to tell
the class explicitly how the module’s assessment will
be carried out. If this is not done, the students might complain
that they were never told, or were told very late in the semester,
how to prepare themselves for this module.
In NUS, teaching staff are required to set the exam questions
and provide the solutions early in the semester. Very often,
the exam question on a particular topic is set even before
the topic is covered in class. This is not necessarily a bad
thing since the syllabus and the examination ought to be viewed
as a whole, so that they are relevant to each other. It therefore
behooves the lecturer to start thinking about the examination
while preparing for the lectures. The fact that teaching staff
are not supposed to repeat tutorial questions in the final
exam makes it even more necessary for the lecturer to consider
all the module’s components—the syllabus, the
tutorials, the CA questions and the final exam questions—in
By now the reader will realise that the rule of the thumb
stating that ‘one needs to spend about 10 hours in preparation
for every hour of lecture’ is just a guideline. To really
be prepared for an hour’s lecture, one probably needs
to invest about 20–30 hours. The uncertainties of any
new module are infinite and the possible outcomes unpredictable.
It is therefore safer to prepare more material than less.
With more preparation comes greater confidence in conducting
the lectures and tutorials, and more competence in handling
unforeseen circumstances. An early start in preparation is
hence an obvious advantage and should be the aim of every
first-timer who desires to do a good job.
Associate Professor Seah Kar Heng is a winner of the
Outstanding Educator Award 2003