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
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
- 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
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.