Lectures, Seminars and Tutorials – Which Ones Are The Most Beneficial?

RESULTS

For clarification, the responses given by the students in Ho Chi Minh City were first considered.

The answers to questions 1 and 2 were almost the same among the students of different universities in Ho Chi Minh City because they reflect the current situation of university education in Vietnam. According to the UEH students and the students of the other three universities (FTU, IU and HCMUS), lectures are now still included as the main components in the curriculum of most of the disciplines. Attending lectures where they just listen and take notes is the most common activity they do in big classes of approximately 100 students or more (150 students per class at University of Natural Sciences). There are no tutorials in their timetables; and seminars, which depend on teachers’ arrangement, mainly serve the purpose of formative assessment. The FTU student added that only two class sessions out of twelve were set for seminars due to the limited time and only a few groups were selected to give oral presentations due to the class size. It is similar in the case of the HCMUS student on the Petroleum Geography course.

At International University (IU), teaching is conducted mainly in English. Thus, in addition to the entrance exams, IU students also have to take an English placement test or have TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS or equivalent English certificates as required. According to the IU student under this study, lectures are delivered in English for the main subjects such as Calculus, Physics except Philosophy of Marxism, which is taught in Vietnamese. From his report, it has been known that in order to support the weak students, a number of outstanding students in their third or final year are selected to play the role of teaching assistants in extra classes. This means there are no tutorial sessions on schedule.

Question 3 turned out different attitudes towards lectures and seminars and tutorials.

The UEH students under this study stated that lectures were certainly useful because they provided them with essential knowledge. However, it was disappointing that they were not motivated to attend some of the lectures just because they were boring and that many of them could not help falling asleep right in the classroom. They also shared the truth that for some subjects, the motivators of their attendance were to please their teachers and more importantly, to attain good scores for class participation, which is a conventional component of their mid-term result in accordance with the assessment system set by the teachers-in-charge. Furthermore, they also emphasized that some lectures were hardly beneficial because the information and knowledge gained were what they could find from their textbooks.

Similar to the UEH students, the IU student also showed a strong agreement on the benefits of lectures, but he was dissatisfied because some of them were not understandable. He explained that this difficulty resulted from the teachers’ way of transmitting knowledge, not from the language barrier between English and Vietnamese.

The HCMUS student expressed his viewpoint confidently that in order to benefit from the lectures students should read the relevant sources of material in advance. He also said that if there was something unclear, questions should be raised without hesitations in the course of lectures.

The FTU student did not make any complaints and took it for granted that lectures must be inevitably uninteresting because there were no interactions between the lecturer and the students.

The data collected from question 4 provided a lot of useful information for the researcher.

The UEH students under this study agreed that attending lectures was a “must” but they would wish the lecturers to make them more exciting. They especially preferred to have seminars in groups rather than in individual work.

The IU student would like to have both lectures where students can listen and take notes in English and tutorials where they can ask their tutors for further explanations in Vietnamese.

It was interesting to find that the FTU student and HCMUS student had contrasting ideas. The FTU student preferred to rely on lectures to acquire knowledge rather than seminars while the HCMUS student believed that taking part in more seminars would make his learning more effective. He argued that he had better opportunities to learn not only from the teacher’s feedback but also from his classmates’ presentations in seminars.

All of them also wished to have tutorials, especially for the most challenging disciplines so that they could feel good at ease to ask questions in small groups and to solve the problems they had to deal with.

The interviews with the two Vietnamese students studying in Singapore are prolific of intriguing information. The following is the true information about the current courses they are attending.

At NUS, each term lasts for three months, namely 13 weeks, including 12 weeks for the formal classes and one mid-course break week.

There is small difference between these students’ answers to questions 1 and 2.

For the Real Estate course, there are two class sessions for a discipline a week. One is handled by a two-hour lecture with more than 100 attendants and the other one is organized in the form of two-hour tutorial guided by teaching assistants who may be teachers or students in their final year. In this way, classes are then divided into smaller groups, each of which has a small number of students fluctuating from fifteen to twenty. Similar to Vietnamese classes, students also listen and take notes during the lectures. However, in tutorials which are guided by teaching assistants or sometimes luckily by professors, they are required to participate in the discussions, debates and oral presentations so called informal seminars. Based on the students’ performance, marking is done during these sessions to assess their understanding as the outcomes of their learning process.

The first-year student on the Bachelor course of Chemical Engineering gave more specific responses via email with the attached current detailed timetable set for her four main subjects and one of General Education – so called “Debating Singapore’s Social and Economic History – which is a compulsory discipline for students of various specialized areas (see appendix). If this subject is not taken into consideration, the duration of lectures on the four main subjects is 11 hours. Unlike the students of the Real Estate major, those majoring in Chemical Engineering have fewer tutorials, that is to say, only 5 out of 19 classes a week. This is because they have to spend three hours carrying out experiments in the laboratory.

For question 3, these students gave a broader view on Singaporean education.

In terms of benefits, these two Vietnamese students studying at NUS (Singapore) revealed more positive perspectives on lectures. Both of them confirmed that at NUS most of the lectures were effectively utilized with the systematic provision of fundamental knowledge and without lectures it would be certainly time-consuming to read and understand the theoretical knowledge in the material. Furthermore, lectures supported their performance in seminars and tutorials. For tutorials, the student of Real Estate course said that they were undoubtedly beneficial for her not only to obtain deep understanding but also to enrich her knowledge of her specialized area. In spite of this, she sincerely claimed that it was very stressful to attend tutorials since she was forced to work hard and perform well to achieve good scores. It was explained that in Singapore students were in head-to-head competition against each other for higher scores. In order to win this competition, she was required to do a lot of reading before class and create as many questions about the topics of the lessons as possible. She also noted that the questions should be both relevant and challenging to show in-depth knowledge about the issue.

According to the Chemical Engineering student, it is far more competitive in the learning context of NUS because assessment is based on Bell Curve system.[8] This means only ten percent of the students with the highest scores got grade A, the following twenty-five percent with the lower scores got grade B and so on. Obviously, with this marking system, students have to perform very well but on top of that, they have to act better than other students to be rated A. It can be seen that the tutorials give them good learning opportunities but simultaneously cause a lot of pressure.

As a result of the perceptions expressed for question 3, these two students also show a distinction in their answers to question 4.

The student on the Real Estate course said that she wanted to have more lectures than tutorials while the one on the Chemical Engineering course was quite happy with her current timetable irrespective of the challenges and pressure in seminars and tutorials.

The interviews with the two UEH teachers were also informative.

Since Political Theory is a knowledge-based subject, the teacher in charge of this subject confirmed that lectures were the main components delivered for nearly the whole course. She argued convincingly that students’ oral presentations or informal seminars which she required her students to perform (about once or twice a semester) were supposed to be supplementary tasks enhancing their self-confidence in public speaking and cultivating their teamwork skill. She also stated that it was impossible to replace lectures with tutorials and seminars because she was required to follow the frame curriculum within a limited time and if too much time was spent on seminars, she would fall behind schedule and fail to deliver all the lessons sufficiently. Being aware of the unfavorable features of this tough subject, she tried to add some interesting activities to her lectures by having films shown, telling stories relevant to the lessons, and organizing study tours to some historical places.

The teacher of “Business Valuation” gave a detailed report on the teaching activities he utilized in the last semester. 50% of his teaching time was covered by lectures and the rest was spent on students’ seminars. There were no tutors and the students worked in groups of 5. Accordingly, there were 10 groups sitting in the same class. The members of a group took turns to give oral presentations while the other groups were listening and preparing the questions. From his perspective, his lectures provided his students with essential knowledge while seminars created more opportunities for his students to apply the knowledge they had learned and to broaden their view. In addition, this teacher stated that the tasks performed in the seminars enabled him to check if his students had been right on track. Based on each member’s work in the seminars including giving oral presentations on the subject-related issues, raising meaningful questions, his/her mid-term score was given. It is important to know that in order to convey all the knowledge of his subject within half of the course, he had to employ a variety of techniques such as summarizing, systematizing by using mind maps, tables and charts and so on.

DATA ANALYSIS AND DISCUSSION

The feedback from the UEH and IU students along with the responses of the UEH teachers reveals the current situation of teaching and learning at Vietnam’s universities where lectures maintain the dominating position in the curriculum. It is noticeable that at Vietnam’s universities seminars are conducted as a kind of test or task which is performed in a big class with the total number of students ranging from 50 to 100 or more. A quick look at the timetable sent by the Chemical Engineering student of NUS suggests a clear idea that seminars and tutorials are the integral parts of the syllabus which are as equally important as lectures.

At UEH or any other Vietnamese universities, seminars are not officially scheduled as they are at NUS; moreover, tutorials are completely absent.  This is an unsolved problem due to the restrictions of the Vietnam’s education policies and the lack of facilities (Nguyen Thi Thuy Hanh, 2012)[9]. On the part of the administrators, “smaller classes” means higher expenses for tutors or teachers.

One thing that Vietnam’s universities and NUS have in common is that the proportion of lectures to seminars differs from subject to subject. However, in Vietnam, it is the teacher who individually decides on the structure of the course while at NUS it is fixed on schedule. For some subjects, there is hardly any time for seminars since the teachers are required to comply strictly with the rigid regulations of the curriculum set by the Ministry of Education and Training.[10] (Nguyen Thi My Hanh, 2009).  It is nevertheless not the teachers who should be blamed.

If we compare the amount of time allocated for lectures, and tutorials at NUS and the time arranged for lectures and seminars by the UEH teacher of Business Valuation, it is conspicuous that there are no gaps between them by any means. By organizing the seminar schedules on his own, guiding the discussions and stimulating the students’ interest in the subject matters, this teacher reflected his awareness of the teacher’s role in task-based teaching (Van Den Branden, K, 2006:136).

The fact is that when attempting to attract the students’ interest in Political Theory by adding a variety of activities to her lectures, the teacher of this subject demonstrated her flexibility and creativity in creating learning opportunities which, according to David Crabbe (2007: 119), are “available in any place and at any time”. Guiding the students in the visits to historical places is one of the countless ways which enabled her to develop good rapport with the students which, in turn, encouraged them to work hard with such a difficult subject (Rose M. Senior, 2002: 41)

With regard to the benefits, although the UEH students under this study had no inspirations for attending some certain lectures and the other students concerned in this research had different reactions towards the effects of lectures, none of them denied the importance and the benefits of lectures and seminars.

The NUS students placed a high value on the lectures they had attended because these lectures were systematically given and assisted them in saving time substantially. This fact supports the IU student’s idea that it is not the content of the lectures that counts, but the way they are delivered.

In spite of great pressure caused by the highly competitive atmosphere in the tutorials along with the painful experience of the Bell Curve System, the NUS students under this study accepted tutorials as good learning opportunities which they engaged in through their performance (Crabbe, D. 2007)

Both of the UEH teachers expressed the same viewpoints about the functions of lectures. They believed that knowledge should be transferred to students by means of lectures, even though there is no denying that this teaching approach resonates with learners’ passivity.[11]

The way the teacher of Business Valuation handled the seminars in his class could burden his students with the tasks they had to do for assessment. This is somewhat similar to the tutorials guided at NUS though not as stressful and fiercely competitive as reported by the NUS students. However, we should agree with Miller and Parlett (1974) that students are most influenced not by teaching, but by assessment. Only when students’ performance is evaluated for the marking, do they work harder. This teacher was on the right track.

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