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

Nguyễn Thị Kim Thủy, M.A.
Lecturer of School of Foreign Languages for Economics – UEH

As a famous quote goes: “the world is like a book and those who do not travel read only one page”. Reading only a few pages of “this book” from my last visits to some Singaporean universities, I have earned a lot of food for thought as a traveller. As a teacher, the trips to National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technology University induced my inspiration for this research on teaching approach.


Many decades have seen myriad innovations in teaching methods.  It is now common that teachers do not rigidly comply with the principles and practices of established teaching approach, but flexibly employ their intuitive ability and experiential knowledge to realize what works and what does not work in any situation. Vietnamese teachers are not exceptions. A lot of efforts have been made to improve teaching and learning quality with certain success.

However, a survey conducted by the National Academies of Engineering, Science and Medicine (USA)  gave rise to  a negative comment  that teaching and learning at Vietnam’s universities are not effective as Vietnamese teachers often spend too much time delivering lectures and the mutual interactions between teachers and students rarely occur inside or outside class [1] (cited in Ngo Tu Thanh , 2011). Similarly, Ms Nguyen Thi My Hanh (2009), on deliberating teaching methodology exploited at Vietnam’s universities, also claimed that the traditional teaching method with which teachers dictated and students wrote down exactly what had been said remained the most common at Vietnamese universities. [2]

The diversity of teaching may come from diverse educational backgrounds. When asked about teaching methodology, the representatives of both National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technology University took pride in stating that seminars and tutorials were the essential components of their academic curriculum. They explained that classes were divided into tutorial groups for oral presentations and discussions, called seminars. They also added that in order to perform well in their tutorials, students were required to access online teaching material and listen to the tapes in advance to acquire the theoretical knowledge of the subjects they had enrolled in.


Because the unpleasant mentioned-above comments on teaching at Vietnam’s universities dated back from 2009 and 2011 – that is to say, many years ago, we may wonder if such a backward-looking situation remains unchanged. This article, therefore, aims at finding out if lectures are currently the main teaching practices at Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics (UEH) and at some other Vietnamese universities?

Is it feasible for seminars and tutorials to be incorporated into the curriculum as the integral parts at Vietnamese universities as in Singaporean universities? Which ones result in more benefits for the students – lectures, seminars or tutorials?


For clarification, the key features of lectures, seminars and tutorials should be investigated.

A lecture is “a structured talk on a given subject in Continuing or Higher Education”[3]. It is a monologue that is delivered by a single person, usually a professor. In a lecture, the professor dictates and the students take notes. The students have opportunities to ask questions and have questions clarified instantly. In addition, lecturing is highly recommended by Bruce G Charton MD (2006) as the best teaching method in many circumstances and for many students to bridge the knowledge gaps between the teacher and the learners. Unlike other means of communication such as a book or a computer monitor, which are artificial and unnatural, lectures are considered as social events with human presence at a real time (Charton B.G. 2006; 67: 1261-5)

Meanwhile, a seminar is a teaching session for a group of approximately ten to twenty five. It is often guided by a teacher or a lecturer and often includes group discussions. In a seminar, it is the students who are the presenters and the professor or the teacher has only a limited role[4]. As a facilitator, he just oversees or guides the class. According to Graham Gibbs (1974) a seminar offers a great opportunity for students to deepen their understanding of the subject matters and to obtain some formative oral feedback from their tutors and to a lesser extent from their peers.

The term “Tutorial” is defined in many ways. The most transparent one done by the Teaching staff of UNSW (2014) indicates that a tutorial is a class session where a small number of students take part in discussion on the content of a previous lecture under the guidance of a tutor.[5] A tutorial is regarded as a method of transferring knowledge and may be used as a part of a learning process. It is more interactive and specific than a book or a lecture. Guided by a teacher or a teaching assistant, a tutorial gives students specific examples and supplies the information to complete a certain task[6]. This type of class configuration encourages students’ participation and gives them opportunities to ask their tutors for help in case they have problems with the matters relating to the course[7].

Although the words “tutorial” and “seminar” are sometimes used interchangeably, there are some differences between them. Specifically, an academic tutorial may be less formal and less structured while a seminar tends to be quite structured (Mann A. & Wilding. E; 2007).

From the above review, it is obvious that in seminars or tutorials, the teacher, though not as the center, is a crucial participant in stimulating, guiding and supporting the students’ learning.

Whatever role a teacher plays in a seminar or a lecture or a tutorial, these teaching methods certainly provide learners with a variety of learning opportunities which David Crabbe (2007) considers as an activity that makes learning occur.

Research Method

In order to achieve the aim of this piece of research, qualitative data were collected from unstructured interviews which, as directed by Wallace (1998), were conducted with a relaxed atmosphere, but without losing sight of the research purpose. In spite of its informality, the use of open questions enabled the researcher to take up the opportunities to probe for a deeper understanding, ask for clarification as well as allowed the interviewees to steer the direction of the interview in order to ensure the validity.

Data analysis then followed with some discussions and findings.

The Subjects under study (so called the interviewees) and the instrument

The subjects under study were three cohorts of university students. The first one consisted of 5 second-year students attending different classes (Course 40 – so called K40) of UEH. The second group comprises three students from other universities rather than UEH namely, Foreign Trade University (FTU), Ho Chi Minh City University of Natural Sciences (HCMUS) and International University/ Ho Chi Minh City National University (IU), where the teaching is conducted mainly in English. The interviewees of the third group were two Vietnamese students studying at National University of Singapore (NUS) – one first-year student and one second-year student majoring in Real Estate and Chemistry respectively. Because at the time of the interview, both of them were still on the course in Singapore (they are currently studying there), the interviews with them had to be conducted via emails and phone calls with the use of Viber. By interviewing these two NUS students, the researcher could acquire further details of how the seminars and tutorials are handled in Singapore so as to make a comparison.

These interviews focused mainly on the following questions:

  1. What are the learning and classroom practices exercised at the above-mentioned students’ universities?
  2. What is the current proportion of lectures to seminars and tutorial sessions?
  3. What are their perceptions of the benefits of lectures, tutorials and seminars?
  4. Which ones are preferred – lectures, tutorials and seminars? What is the reason of their preference?

In addition, for the sake of validity and objectivity the researcher did carry out two interviews with two teachers of Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics (UEH), one of whom teaches “Business Valuation”. The other one teaches Political Theory.  The interview questions for these two teachers involve

  1. the teaching activities currently used
  2. the current proportion of lectures to tutorials or seminars for his/her subject.
  3. the benefits of lectures, tutorials and seminars from the interviewees’ perspectives as teachers
  4. the possibility of using seminars and tutorials in place of lectures.

Due to the fact that the Vietnamese education system is different from the Singaporean one in many respects, the responses of the Vietnamese students studying at Vietnam’s universities were mentioned first then came the discussion on the information collected from the Vietnamese students studying in Singapore (the NUS students)