Teaching at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels present different challenges.
I meet my undergraduate students right at the start of their university life – in the first semester of their first year of studies at NTU. At this early stage, the realities (and the occasional harshness) of life have not dawned on most students yet. I take the opportunity to explain to my students that when they decided to accept the offer to study at NTU some three or four months before they meet me for the very first time, they decided (perhaps even without realising it) that for the next forty years, they will depend on their brainpower to put food on the table, to pay for their housing loans, and to take the occasional holidays. Every expense they make, and every bill they pay for will depend on the stock of knowledge they have accumulated, not just at NTU, but also at the school of hard knocks. Because of this, they have to, in the short time that they have at NTU, learn as much as they can. They cannot be contented with learning just the material presented in classes, but have to go beyond, and also cultivate the personal qualities that will take them successfully to the end of their lives.
I tell my students that although it sounds like a tall order, they are well positioned to learn all of this because NTU is a place where astonishing opportunities can be found. At NTU, every effort has been made to ensure that the infrastructure, information resources, social networking possibilities and academic programmes are world-class, but it all comes to naught unless students take advantage of them. Students therefore, have to actively seek these opportunities out, and avail themselves to them. They must seize the moment.
I explain that a university education is one of the biggest purchases of their lives, not just because of the money involved, but because of the opportunities and time forgone at the peak of their youth. I stress that the fees are paid for by the hard-earned money of their parents, and that the best way to repay their parents is to do well, and not to squander four years of their lives drifting aimlessly.
The undergraduate class that I teach is a large one (129 students), and a challenge specific to this class is the large variation in the mathematical abilities of the students. Some 12% of the students have not taken Additional Mathematics at O level, and concepts like integration are foreign to them. Another 25% took Mathematics as an H1 subject at A level, and are not as adept at mathematics as those who took it as an H2 subject. I have responded to the challenge in two ways. First, I organised two remedial classes for the students (both during the one-week break), and also prepared four workbooks for the students (a fifth workbook is currently in preparation). Each workbook is divided into two sections – the first section contains questions to be attempted by every student, while the second section contains questions for the weaker students. By doing this, I hope to bring the weaker students to be on par with the stronger ones.
Teaching at the postgraduate level presents a different set of challenges and they stem from diversity of the students. The students admitted to the three Master’s programmes come from different countries, have been exposed to a variety of educational systems and acquired different work experiences, belong to different age groups and cultures, possess varying levels of knowledge and interest in the subject matter, and have different motivations for pursuing a postgraduate degree. They play several roles, and juggle several responsibilities. Part-time students, who account for almost half of every cohort, often come for classes exhausted after work from as far away as Changi. Making their trip down to NTU worthwhile is what I strive to do for them.
I believe that in lecture theatres and tutorial rooms, teachers have the power to create conditions that can help students maximize their learning. To me, teaching is, in fact, the intentional act of creating these ideal learning conditions, and so, in every class I teach, I strive to create them.
I create them by ensuring that my lessons are both engaging and relevant to the students, and that they are able to learn and apply the concepts taught despite their different backgrounds. To achieve this, I am responsive to students’ needs and put a significant amount of effort in my preparation and delivery to ensure that my course materials are rigorous, current, and at the same time, interesting. As part of the course preparation, I also monitor trends in the fields of knowledge management and information studies by interacting with professionals, researchers, and current students. I read widely, and my readings help to keep the course content updated. In addition, I encourage active participation and peer-learning among students by providing opportunities for class presentations, group projects, and discussions.
To me, good teaching goes beyond possessing excellent teaching technique and method. It does not come solely from a meticulously prepared lesson plan. Good teaching also means being excited and passionate about the subject matter (no matter how many times one has taught the same material), being willing to connect and engage with the students, and being authentic about one’s identity as a teacher.
I try to make every encounter with my students, whether at the lecture theatre or serendipitously at the canteen, a meaningful and inspiring one. I try to go beyond being fun, interesting, or even engaging. After 13 weeks with me, I hope I have made an impact on their lives, and that I have changed them in some positive way.
Students today are very fixated on the syllabus. It has become a list of topics to be completed by the end of the semester. I try to change this “syllabus completion” mindset by encouraging students not to be limited by a document that has been thoughtfully, but still artificially put together, but to equip themselves with every possible skill they can get their hands on. Students need to know that the set of knowledge they need in their lifetime is not restricted to any syllabus, and so their learning should not be restricted by one.
Students today have been brought up to understand that learning should be fun. While I agree that learning can, and often is indeed fun, mastery takes discipline, persistence, endurance, fortitude, sacrifice, and the ability to handle setbacks and failures along the way. It’s never going to be plain sailing, and students have to be prepared for this.