By SAYUMI TAKE
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. The professor’s voice drones on via the microphone. The boy sitting 4 seats away is obviously finishing up his homework for Chinese class. The index finger of the girl in front of me is scrolling the Twitter feed on her phone. Another classmate is lightly snoring away. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. The professor must lecture for another hour before class is dismissed.
Such classroom scenes were the norm in about half of the classes I signed up for in my first year at the University of Tokyo (UT). A not-so-small number of classes offered to April-entry students are centered on lectures, and require close to zero participation. Students are graded solely on how well they do on the end-of-term exams or papers, and so there are usually a steady amount of people who receive credit without showing up for class at all. In such lecture-based classes, all we really do is sit there and take notes, even though we are in a classroom with other learners and a professional of the field. According to the results of an online questionnaire conducted by UT in March 2018, to which roughly 15% of targeted students answered, 58.7% did NOT think they acquired the ability to discuss and debate with others. Also, 57.2% answered that they did NOT think there were enough opportunities for students and professors to communicate.
For me, the 105 minutes of class was almost a completely passive learning process. When I had a question, I would go up to the professor after class, but other than that, I might as well have been at home, watching a video of the professor talking. If I had had the guts to raise my hand in class and speak up, a class discussion might have started and paved a way to an interactive, engaging class. But in a huge lecture hall of 100 students, or even in a classroom of 20 students, the students (not all, but at least some) ready to listen and take notes for 105 minutes, and the professor all set to speak non-stop for 105 minutes, I just couldn’t sum up the courage to do so.
I might as well have been at home, watching a video of the professor talking.
In Japanese universities, it is still uncommon for a part of students’ grades to be based on class participation. As far as I know, in UT such evaluation criterion is applied mainly in PEAK classes and some seminars for April-entry students. It seems that the criterion is yet to be recognized as an important, legitimate one, and perhaps this is why the majority of classes offered at UT are lecture-based that allow uninterested students to be inactive.
However, at the end of the year, the classes that influenced me the most were the few seminar-like classes that I squeezed into my weekly schedule. These classes valued the participation of each student, and were full of interactive discussions and student presentations. For instance, in one PEAK philosophy class, every session started with a group discussion on the assigned reading material, followed by a class discussion and follow-up lecture by the professor. In another English class, the professor assigned one student each week to research and present about the assigned text, and take ample time for a Q&A session after the presentation. These classes resulted in closer ties between everyone in the classroom and a deep, multidimensional understanding of the class material. I had to sacrifice a lot of my time outside of class on a daily basis, but was rewarded with intensive, lively, eye-opening discussions that required me to not only take part in the class but also, in a way, partially take up the role of teachers and lead the class.
Lecture-based classes are incapable of bringing out the full potential in each member of UT, and will kill such precious opportunities.
The origin of the word “university” comes from the latin word universitas, meaning community — a united community of professors and students. Ideally, classes at universities should be a place where the members of the academic community communicate with each other, not just a pipeline where the professor stands at one end and pours out knowledge for the students to receive on the other. Today, UT is still believed to be one of the top universities in Japan, with intelligent students and professors who are first-class scholars in their academic field. If such students and professors came together to share their knowledge and thoughts on numerous themes, something unpredictable and wonderful, whether it be an eye-opening insight or a revolutionary idea that could save the world, is bound to be born out of it. Lecture-based classes are incapable of bringing out the full potential in each member of UT, and will kill such precious opportunities. Therefore, I am confident that increasing the number of seminars and classes like the ones mentioned above as an alternative to classes based on one-way lectures, would lead to an overall energization of UT’s academic activities.
Previously published in the April 2019 print publication of Komaba Times