For most NUS freshmen, the matriculation maze is
usually the first 'maze' they need to get through and the
first semester, their second 'labyrinth'. Hence, during
my first lesson on problem-solving, I would show the
freshmen a maze problem (see Figure 1) and ask about
300-500 students in the lecture theatre to devise an
algorithm or an idea that allows the mouse to get to the
Getting the attention of such a large class is certainly
no mean feat given that students have an attention span of only 15-20 minutes (Anderson, 1995). To break the
lecture's monotony, I use a number of "change-up"
activities (Schoenfeld & Magnan, 1994; Middendorf &
Kalis, 1996), including switching the mode of delivery
(e.g. putting aside the PowerPoint slides to show the class
an animated algorithm, showing students a program
development process from design to coding, or even
getting some students to go in front of the class to perform
some practical tasks). Punctuating the lecture with short
breaks and fun tasks such as the maze problem (see
Figure 1) also helps to engage students. Similarly, using
interesting activities (e.g. how many times can you fold a
sheet of paper?) (Peterson, 2004) to illustrate important
concepts (e.g. algorithmic exponential growth) can also
help students learn better.
Figure 1: Can you help the mouse get to the cheese?
In addition, managing students' short attention span
and their diverse academic backgrounds and learning
styles not only necessitates some degree of flexibility
and balance in my teaching approach (Brightman, 1998;
Felder, 1998), but also warrants an instructional design
that takes into account students' varied learning needs,
especially those of weaker students. This problem is
compounded especially in a large class-the lecturer
could either end up making the stronger students feel
bored or intimidating the weaker ones.1 Moreover, how
many tricks can a teacher pull in a lecture without turning
it into a circus act?
Taking these factors into consideration, I incorporate the
following three elements into my instructional design:
- Design tutorials and lectures to provide a progressive
coverage of course material;
- Provide timely feedback to students through the
virtual classroom; and
- Emphasise on the assessment of problem solving
Due to space constraints, I shall elaborate only on the
first point in the next section.
Designing Tutorials and Lectures to Provide a
Progressive Coverage of Course Material
Apart from regular tutorial questions, I usually include
additional materials such as an exploration section to
inculcate independent learning, a check-it-out section
for quick answers, a learn-from-your-mistake section
and an optional challenger section. The aim of this mix
is to cater to students' diverse learning needs.
Knowing that students would often need time to make
sense of knowledge before they can internalise it, I use
two strategies in my teaching. The first is to provide a
progressive coverage of a particularly difficult topic (e.g.
introducing the topic first with its intricacies stripped,
then revisiting it for a more complete treatment the
second time or a third time towards the end of the course
to address more complex issues). In this way, students are
exposed to the topic a few times. Such a strategy, which
plays on the effect of repetition and spaced-out learning,
has been found to be more effective than extra lessons
or remedial classes, especially for problem-solving
modules. However, the instructor has to plan and organise
the course material carefully. Another strategy is to cover
a difficult topic over two separate days. For example, I
would start teaching the topic during the second hour of
a lecture and continue with it in the next lecture.
Most of our students do see the value of quality education.
Despite the occasional complaints whenever they face
a tough assignment or tight deadline, some students do
yearn for challenges.2 As teachers, we should provide
students with an environment that is conducive for them
to take up challenges.
Figure 2: Getting the mouse to the cheese.
Self-reflection applies to teachers and learners alike
(Dewey, 1933 ). Not only can we learn from the insights
of more experienced teachers, we can also save ourselves
from the misery of ignorance or complacency. To avoid
getting stuck in the 'maze' of teaching, one should
pause, ponder and assess our position from time to time.
Understanding our strengths and weaknesses could serve
as a prelude to reviewing our strategies.
Returning to the maze problem at the beginning of the
article, a simple way for the mouse to get to the cheese
is to keep its left paw on the wall as illustrated in Figure
2. However, the ability to turn this idea into a code is,
of course, another matter. Still, more often than not,
students would be amazed by the simplicity of such an
idea and the realisation of a way-albeit not the best-to
get out of a maze, should they find themselves in one.
Anderson, J.R. (1995). Cognitive Psychology and its Implications. (4th
edition). New York: W.H. Freeman.
Brightman, H.J. (1998). 'GSU Master Teacher Program: On Learning
Styles', Master Teacher Programs: Improving University-Level
Teaching and Learning, Georgia State University, (Last accessed: 19 September
Dewey, J. (1993). How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation
of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process. Boston: D.C.
Felder, R.M. (1998). 'How Students Learn, How Teachers Teach,
and What Goes Wrong with the Process'. Tomorrow's Professor,
19 September 2005).
Middendorf, J. & Kalis, A. (1996). 'The "Change-Up" in Lectures'.
The National Teaching & Learning Forum (NTLF). Vol. 5 No. 2.
19 September 2005).
Peterson, I. (2004). 'Champion Paper-Folder'. Muse, July/August, pp.
33. (Last accessed: 19 September 2005).
Schoenfeld, A.C. & Magnan, R. (1994). 'Minimizing Mental Lapses
during a Lecture', in Mentor in a Manual, Climbing the Academic
Ladder to Tenure. Madison, WI: Magna Publications, Inc. pp.
1 For more resources on teaching large classes, see the website of Center for Academic Excellence (CAE).
(Last accessed: 21 October 2005).
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2 Based on a survey on reduction of curriculum intensity conducted
by School of Computing, National University of Singapore in