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Adopting learner-centred strategies has major implications for faculty and individual students. This issue of CDTL Brief on Learner-centred Teaching/Learning explores how certain learner-centred approaches may be adapted to improve student learning in various contexts.

April 2006, Vol. 9, No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Student-led Tutorials
Dr Doobo Shim
Department of Communications and New Media Programme


In teaching Singaporean students, I found one major mystery-cum-problem: students seem too shy to answer my questions during the tutorials and lectures. In order to understand and solve this mystery-cum-problem, I spoke to some of my colleagues and students. Some of the more probable explanations were as follows: Students in Singapore have a sense that teachers are to be revered, and few students wish to be seen 'showing off' by answering questions in class.

Most Singaporean students in NUS have been conditioned to conform to such 'normative' classroom behaviour by the local education system before entering the university. Students' lack of participation in tutorials was confirmed by a recent study done by a group of NUS professors. According to Lu, Park, Sim, and Vigneron (2003), while most students prepare for tutorials by reading lecture notes and/or textbooks, and by trying to answer some or all of tutorial questions, their discussion participation in tutorials is "disappointingly low". In the study, only 34% of students were engaged in tutorial discussions and only 15% reported that they volunteered to solve questions in tutorials.

After reading the report, I began to think of ways to create a more conducive class environment for teacher and students to interact with one another. In the meantime, I attended the 3-day Professional Development Programme-Teaching (PDP-T) organised by the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL) at NUS. Among the talks by various NUS faculty who have won teaching awards, I could still vividly remember the lectures by Professor Alex Ip from the Department of Biology who shared about his struggles to improve his teaching and how he succeeded. He highlighted that NUS was moving from the old paradigm of teacher-centred lecture mode to the new paradigm of student-centred interactive mode. The idea of student-led discussion has been supported by academics around the world. For example, in 2003, McKeachie, Pintrich, Lin and Smith argued that the most effective method of teaching is that of "student teaching other students" (Ip, 2003). Likewise in 2003, Spencer suggested replacing instructor-led lectures with discussion-based classes in which the professor is a facilitator of student discussions (Szeto, 2005).

The idea of student-led discussion inspired me to devise a method called the student-led tutorial in which students lead discussions and pose questions to fellow students. By getting students to play the tutor's role, I hoped to help students develop initiative and motivation in learning.

Conducting the Student-led Tutorials

I divided the whole tutorial class into groups of about four students each. Since student-student interaction and integration is a prerequisite for increasing interaction between teacher and students, I intentionally mixed students from different years, majors and gender in each group. By this, I hoped to bring about collaborative learning as students with different strengths, knowledge and skills learn from one another.

A tutorial leader was appointed in each group and his/her duty was to lead tutorial discussions using the questions I posted on the Integrated Virtual Learning Environment (IVLE) about two days before the tutorial.

The group leaders had to meet before the tutorial sessions to discuss the questions and other matters such as deciding the sequence and who will be in charge of which discussion question.

The tutorial groups could also consult me to discuss their preparation for tutorial discussions or related tasks. Members of each group took turns being the scribe so that a summary of tutorial discussions could be posted on the IVLE's discussion forum after each tutorial.

To prevent freeloaders, I incorporated peer-review and peer-grading after each tutorial session. My role in the tutorials was that of a discussion facilitator, observer and resource person. When the discussion did not flow well, I provided some hints and prompt students to answer at least partially. At the beginning of each tutorial, I identified the objectives of tutorial discussions and provided clarification of some concepts. At the end of each session, I commented briefly on that day's tutorial.

Collateral Benefits

In addition to the goal of increasing interaction in class, getting students to lead discussion also helped to develop in the following areas:

  • Cooperation: This method facilitates small-group learning and interaction, and promotes teamwork as students have to meet outside class hours to discuss how to lead the discussion in tutorials.

  • Confidence: As students develop a sense of belonging to a group, hopefully, the shyer ones would feel more comfortable speaking up.

  • Leadership: By playing the role of a discussion leader, students can develop leadership qualities and skills.

  • Communication skills: Students can develop academic argumentation skills as well as communication skills as they discuss the tutorial questions among themselves.


Tutorials became more interactive and students were more involved in the learning processes. With their professor on the sidelines, students seemed to feel comfortable expressing radical, unique and even 'funny' ideas. The following were some favourable student feedback:

  • "Dr. Shim is very creative in the way he teaches."

  • "Dr. Shim encourages us to break out from our shells and participate more in discussions."

  • "He gives students total freedom in conducting the tutorials."

  • "He makes tutorials and lectures very lively and interesting."


After implementing the student-led tutorial method for a few consecutive semesters, it seemed that the method lost its novelty; only a few students continued to participate in the tutorial discussion. Eventually, this affected the tutorial leaders, causing them to lose the motivation in taking the lead.

There could be many reasons why the method did not work. One is that I had failed to increase students' motivation in learning the subject and participating actively in discussions. The continuous assessment (CA) marks allotted for tutorial participation could be too insignificant. I also did not ask students for feedback on how to improve this method or allowed students to ask questions and discuss tasks they wanted to perform. More importantly, I may have failed to display my enthusiasm in teaching the subject and this could have been reflected by my facial expression and gestures which affected my students consequently.

In the end, the professor's attitude matters. If I had cared about my students and their academic progress, and enjoyed interacting directly with students, this student-led tutorial method might have been more successful.


Ip, Y.K. (2003). 'Facilitating Students' Learning: Cooperation or Competition?'. Ideas on Teaching, Vol. 1, pp. 22-23.

Lu, X.; Park, C.; Sim, T. & Vigneron, A. (2003). 'A Survey of Tutorial Preparation and Participation'. CDTL Brief, Vol. 6, No. 10, pp. 5-7.

Szeto, A.K. (2005). 'Lecture, Discussion (Tutorial) and Laboratory: Time for a Change?' Ideas on Teaching, Vol. 3, pp. 42-43.

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Inside this issue
‘Divide and Conquer’: Breaking a Big Class into Small Teams for Tutorials
Teaching Patient-centred Care in the Community
Case-based Tutorials
Learner-centred Practices and the Necessary Changes
The Philetics of Teaching
Teaching Students with Different Learning Styles
Student-led Tutorials