Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

How do you foster enthusiasm and participation in tutorials particularly by international students?

Suzette Chapple
Department of Accounting and Finance
The University of Western Australia
The dilemma presented here is: "How do you foster enthusiasm and participation in tutorials particularly by international students?" Increasing class sizes, large numbers of international students and lower TEE entrance levels have led to a change in student expectations and attitudes due to both cultural and quality factors. For academic staff, this has resulted in a dilemma in getting students to prepare for and participate in tutorials. Over the last few years, I have been trying, discarding and refining different approaches in various commerce courses (auditing, taxation and management accounting). This paper documents my attempts to get an active, enthusiastic learning environment through a mixture of debates, article summaries and small group work. In particular, international students seem to be very reticent in tutorial groups. However, when called upon, with advance notice and preparation, to present to the class, their talents, presentation and thoroughness is to be applauded and imitated by other students. Further, this seems to raise the overall standard from other students whilst also engendering a more active learning environment.


The accounting education process has been described as one that involves more than just the transfer of accounting knowledge (IFAC 1994 p4). It should encourage the active participation of students and involve teaching the skills and strategies necessary for effective learning so "teaching methods should be used that expand and reinforce basic communication, intellectual, negotiation and interpersonal skills". Commerce students are usually portrayed as passive and receptive rather than critical or questioning. In particular, lower quality students and international students seem to expect the tutor will impart the required knowledge fully and clearly which implies that the tutor knows "the answer". Such dependent student-tutor interactive patterns may result from misinformed expectations of the students and the tutor's role and do not encourage independent learners for whom understanding in the form of questioning, analysing, evaluating and criticising is more important than remembering facts in isolation. Further, Nias (1987) reports that the culture of teaching tends to be one of agreement where challenge is perceived to be uncomfortable. A related problem is the student non-acceptance of theory which ignores the fact that it is theory that provides assistance in solving any new problems. These difficulties are common in many tertiary disciplines.

Since I began teaching commerce at the University of Western Australia in 1990, several factors at tutorial level have required a change in tutorial practice. These are tutorial class size, tutorial student composition and a lowering of student quality.

Typical class sizes have increased from a maximum of 10 students to a minimum of 14 and often 15 and 16. Tutorial groups of this size can tend towards becoming a mini-lecture with too much emphasis being placed on the tutor as the fount of all knowledge whilst students come along very much unprepared and unwilling to participate.

Tutorial composition in 1990 was predominantly of Anglo-Saxon origin with only 10-15% international students. Now at least 60% of students in commerce tutorials are from overseas mainly from South-East Asia.(Official UWA statistics) This is common in Australian universities in the 1990s. Whilst there is a need to avoid sweeping generalisations in relation to culture, educational systems and attitudes to study it is necessary to recognise individual differences among Australian and overseas students. Ballard and Clanchy (1991) consider that the most significant barriers to overseas students participating in tutorials are the difficulty they find in joining in group discussions (although they are very experienced in group work) and the inappropriate styles of reading in preparation for discussions. As one overseas student told me "many of us are just too shy". This presents the conundrum as to whether to try to force these students to join in as it may be embarrassing for them, the tutor and the rest of the class. Another aspect is the problem that overseas students do not want to "lose face" in front of their peers ("we are very much afraid of making mistakes, especially in front of Australian students") whilst they also find it hard to interrupt and put their point of view. To compound this, there are often language difficulties both in understanding what Australian students and tutors are saying ("they speak fast and use colloquialisms which we do not understand") and an insufficient command of English so that there is difficulty in expressing themselves ("sometimes the tutor does not understand my question so answers something different and I am too embarrassed to ask again").

My observation of the educational systems in many South-East Asian countries is that interaction is not encouraged ("our culture is so different as it is not 'normal' to speak up like this in front of others, not even in a classroom") and that classes are to listen, write and absorb in order to reproduce in exams so students attend tutorials to get the "correct" answer. As a result, overseas students do not understand the rules of discussion, are often unable to handle the assertiveness of some Australian students and have an inability to challenge authority as they are taught that critical analysis is not a trait to be admired. As one student told me, "I do not wish to contradict another speaker in public but prefer to think of my objections inside my head." Ballard and Clanchy (1991) also suggest that Asian students generally tend towards a reproductive approach to learning that is dependent on memorisation and rote learning and that to "know" something is to "remember it" or "be able to reproduce it". I once marked an exam paper in which an Asian student reproduced verbatim nine lengthy lecture overheads. However, when it came to answering the question asked, it was obvious that there was no understanding of the underlying concepts in these overheads.

The mean TEE entrance level for commerce at UWA has decreased from over 400 in the late 1980s to 351 in 1996 with a minimum entrance score of only 307.(official UWA figures) Higher TEE entrance scores relate to more confident and motivated students who are more likely to be more enquiring and be more critical thinkers. As a result of the lower entrance scores, tutors have noticed a marked increase in students coming to tutorials totally unprepared, just wanting "the answer" and not prepared to participate.

In response to these problems, I have been endeavouring to foster more enthusiasm and participation in the tutorials by a variety of methods. I place great emphasis on tutorial ambience and breaking down student reticence by various means including debates, breaking the class into smaller groups of three or four with one student being allocated as the "leader" and requiring summaries of relevant articles to be handed in to the tutor whilst tutorial questions are set on these articles.

Tutorial ambience

It is not enough to tell students to participate but they must be encouraged and able to participate. The tutorial should have a happy, relaxed atmosphere and be seen as a place in which every student will be respected, valued and encouraged to take risks. For some students, particularly overseas students, just making an unsolicited comment in class feels like a major risk. The atmosphere should be enjoyable, stimulating and challenging for both the tutor and the students. Thus, class time taken up with various icebreakers is invaluable in producing a more lively, co-operative and self-motivated group where students feel confident to enthusiastically contribute.

This atmosphere has to be put into place from the beginning. I usually start with some form of introductions. Rather than have students introduce themselves which is usually rather than brief and boring ("I'm Suzette and I'm doing commerce"), I give the students, in pairs or threes, five minutes to get to know each other and then introduce each other to the class. This is far more fun (and revealing!) and relaxes the students. Also, partly because I have difficulty in remembering student names (particularly when I have several hundred each semester), I give each student name tags on which I ask them to write their preferred form of address. This not only allows me to address students correctly which I think is important to their self-esteem but also allows students to be able to address each other by name. This is particularly relevant as many of our units have in excess of 300 students and in some units 800 students so that students do not know many of their fellow students even at the end of their degree.

Having set a more relaxed atmosphere in an individual and personal way, I then attempt to encourage them to participate in the content of the unit. I work at overcoming students fear of making mistakes and being prepared to discuss the issues. Debates and small group discussions are used for this.


The Macquarie Dictionary defines a debate as "a systematic contest of speakers in which two opposing points of view of a proposition are advanced". I have found debates particularly effective in breaking down the barriers between students whilst also forcing students to confront contradictions and differing points of view in the discipline. As such, I try to schedule debates in the early weeks of the semester. However, there are several very important factors in organising a successful debate.

Firstly, the students have to understand exactly what is required of them. The Appendix illustrates the instructions that are given to students as to the format of a debate. I discuss these instructions with the students whilst also giving them various references to start their preparation and stress the need for all students to cover both sides of the argument in order to be able to refute any arguments. Students are also informed that, at the conclusion of the debate, the non-participating students are expected to critique the debate concentrating on the topic (the tutor gives written feedback on the individual presentation skills) and give their opinion as to which argument was the most persuasive in order to arrive at a "winning" team. No student will be allowed to shirk from this as I specifically call on them if they have not volunteered. I actively encourage students to question the debaters and the debaters to defend their point of view. The tutorial questions for the week are also tailored to the debate topic so that students (both debaters and others) have some further guidance as to the issues concerned and also, if discussion lags, these can be utilised. However, in most cases, I have found that the tutorial questions are not used as the students have plenty to say and are still arguing as they reluctantly leave the tutorial.

Secondly, the importance of the topic selection cannot be over-emphasised as it is vital to the success of the debate. A good topic will stimulate discussion long after the formal debate has concluded. The topic needs to be current, encourage students to research the area and have no "right" answer to the extent that either side can and does conceivably "win" the argument depending on the persuasiveness of the speakers concerned. I have been involved in a unit where the topic selected for debate (not by me!) obviously strongly favoured the negative argument. Not only were the debates boring but they were extremely frustrating for the students trying to put forward the affirmative arguments and, of equal importance, they did not stimulate discussion after the debate itself was concluded.

I have found most debates particularly satisfying for both students and tutors. Particularly satisfying is where students indicate that their opinion had been changed by the arguments put forward. In particular, I have found that the international students perform extremely well in debates and often are more creative and innovative than their Australian peers. For example, university students from other disciplines were surveyed on the topic. Certainly, their industry and thoroughness is to be applauded and sets the tone for a high standard of student preparation and participation. I also find that the debate seems to give these students more confidence in front of the other students and this then flows on to later tutorials. Possibly, particularly for these students, the fact that there is advance notice and preparation and the presentation is done in a group makes it far less stressful and allows them to perform better.

Whilst very pleased with the success of the debates, I would counsel against overuse as, apart from a discipline like law, it is extremely difficult to find suitable topics and also students may find the format boring. I think their main benefit is in the breaking down of the barriers to participation in future tutorials whilst also enabling students and tutors to get to know each other better through the lively discussion. The non-threatening environment is enhanced.

Small group discussions

Fourteen or more students in a tutorial present a problem, particularly for overseas students, as students find it difficult to speak in front of a group (including the tutor) they do not know. Breaking the class into groups of 3 or 4 students with a student allocated as "leader" is less threatening and more conducive to lively interaction as students are forced to give their opinion, or be seen to be letting their peers down. The tutor, who roves the room, is no longer the focus, more reticent students are much more prepared to talk in a small group and it seems to be a far more co-operative learning environment with students helping each other and generally discussing the issues that come up in the tutorial questions.

To further enhance this discussion, students are required to summarise journal articles and give these to the tutor. As guidance for this exercise, a handout on summarisation is given and part of the first lecture is devoted to actually summarising a relevant article making explicit the clues I would use to select relevant passages and isolate critical points. This also had the side-effect of assisting students in reading any assigned texts in the discipline. Students are also asked to provide possible exam questions on these articles whether they be short-answer, multi-choice or long-answer questions. As a result of these procedures, all students can usually contribute even if they have not actually attempted the questions.

Other formal presentations

I find many student formal presentations to be boring whilst other students simply do not listen. They are often too lengthy, detailed and poorly presented, often being read very fast without pause or expression. This can be exacerbated when international students have difficulties with pronunciation. Further, these presentations are often couched in terms so as to prevent rather than provoke discussion. In particular, students do not wish to put themselves in the position of having to answer questions on their presentation or put their friends in such a position. No Dorothy Dix questions here!

I have attempted to alleviate the problems for international students in particular by scheduling more confident Australian students first so that they can see how the system works but unfortunately the Australian students are often equally poor role models. I have attempted to have "dry run" presentations in the first week of semester where the students speak on a topic with which they are very comfortable (eg football) and I give feedback on their presentation style and organisation of content. I give handouts on how to make presentations more interesting. However, nothing seems to make much difference!


As a result of the methods mentioned, I have found increased student confidence in their ability to discuss and participate in tutorials and their ability to read and summarise academic and business articles. However, I am still trying to get better and more interesting ways of getting students to do formal oral presentations as they are very necessary for the business environment in which they will find themselves after they graduate. The experimentation continues!


Ballard & Clanchy (1991). Teaching Students from Overseas. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire Pty Ltd.

International Federation of Accountants (IFAC 1994). 2000 and Beyond: A Strategic Framework for Prequalification Education for the Accountancy Professions in the Year 2000 and Beyond. Discussion Paper, Education Committee, June 1994.

Nias, J. (1987). Seeing Anew: Teachers' Theories of Action. Geelong, Deakin University Press.

Appendix - Handout on debate format

SPEAKER ORDER: teams alternate with the affirmative team beginning

First Speaker
  • introduces team members
  • defines the topic and the basis of their argument
  • introduces opening arguments
First Speaker
  • introduces team members
  • defines the topic and the basis of their argument, possibly rebutting some affirmative's points
  • introduces opening arguments
Second Speaker (and Third if necessary)
  • gives main arguments in detail
  • some rebuttal of the previous negative speaker if appropriate
Second Speaker (and Third if necessary)
  • gives main arguments in detail
  • some rebuttal of the previous affirmative speakers if appropriate
Final Speaker
  • rebuts all arguments of negative team
  • summarises main points of their own argument
  • states why their argument is preferable
Final Speaker
  • rebuts all arguments of affirmative team
  • summarises main points of their own argument
  • states why their argument is preferable

Please cite as: Chapple, S. (1998). How do you foster enthusiasm and participation in tutorials particularly by international students? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 61-65. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/chapple.html

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