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This issue of CDTL Brief features three Teaching Enhancement Grant projects by colleagues from various departments and faculties.

October 2008, Vol. 11 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Towards a Student Driven Pedagogy
 
Associate Professor Ewing-Chow H K M
Faculty of Law
 

When I first started teaching, I thought that the Socratic Method was the best form of pedagogy. Having seen the advantages of that model when I was a student, I believed in it. However, over the years, I have come to believe that not all students are like me (thank God for small mercies). For some students, the Socratic Method works and for others a reliance on that method alone confuses them.

Eventually, I came to ask myself: should I make the students learn to appreciate the Socratic Method or should I tailor my pedagogy to fit my students? In essence, should I listen to those who should listen to me?

As I often tell my students, a lawyer usually should answer, “It depends.” A good lawyer then proceeds to lay out the ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments. So please bear with me as I try to do so. I hope some comfort may be drawn from the fact that unlike most lawyers, I am not charging a fee for this.

Customer Driven, Student Centred
Since Quality Function Deployment (QFD) was originally developed by Akao (1994), Customer Driven Product Design (CDPD) has been the driving force behind many of the most successful products today from Thinkpad laptops to Toyota cars. CDPD asks the simple question: Who are our customers and what do they need? Such an approach has, however, yet to have a significant impact on educational products. Some reasons could be that is that it is a little more difficult to define who are the ‘customers’ of an educational institute and at a more philosophical level, whether experts who ‘know better’ should listen to ‘customers’.

I would like to suggest that we have at least crossed the Rubicon for both objections. If we believe in student feedback, we have already admitted that their opinions count and that we should incorporate where possible, their suggestions (preferably the constructive kind).

Why is it that we often forget to emphasise a student driven approach to pedagogical design? We often lament about how our students fail to fully appreciate a particular teaching methodology such as the Socratic Method. Instead, should we not first be asking ourselves who are our students and second, where should they be after our courses?

Once those questions are answered, should we not then be asking ourselves how do we get them from where they are to where they should be?

The Nature of a University
Why it so important that we get the design of our teaching product right?

During one tedious examination invigilation, a former colleague, a University of Buckingham alumnus,1 was flipping through his alumni magazine. After the exam, for want of reading materials, I too flipped through its pages. I was particularly struck by what their Vice- Chancellor, Terence Kealey, said about their top placing in the 2006 UK National Student Survey:2

What are universities for? The first European university was the University of Bologna, founded around 1100, and for their first 700 years the European universities recognized that their prime responsibility was to teach. But in 1810, under the influence of Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Prussian state created the University of Berlin as a research university.

Humboldt’s hope was that a state-funded research university would help change Prussia’s culture. Prussia was daunted by Britain’s lead in the Industrial Revolution (a lead driven by its private industrial research) and Humboldt suggested that a state-funded research university would help change Prussia’s culture from a peasant and military one into a research and commercial one. So it did, but it also changed the nature of the university. […]

But teaching is more important. Research can take place almost anywhere, and some of the best research institutions are indeed not universities—witness, ironically, the Max Planck institutes in Germany itself. Yet if a university fails to teach properly, then the student’s experience is damaged irreversibly. Few students get a second chance at an undergraduate career.3

However, many of us are often suspicious of taking student feedback too seriously because of the concern that students do not know how to distinguish ‘good’ teaching from ‘nice’ teaching (i.e. teaching that makes students better as opposed to teaching that merely entertains or makes students feel good).

Now, this is a valid concern. Nonetheless, if we believe we can impart knowledge and cultivate critical thinking in our specific fields, should we not also believe that we can teach our students to think critically about teaching?

Learning About the Students and Teaching About Teaching
At the beginning of all my courses, I spend some time finding out about my students, going over my teaching methods, explaining the method to my apparent madness (where possible) and telling students where I hope they will be at the end of the course.

All students come with different needs. After some interaction, it becomes apparent which students are able to link up ideas and information by themselves and which ones need a little guidance with the connections. I try to tailor my methods to fit my students by mixing an overview mini-lecture on a topic with a Socratic discourse on that topic and then getting them to apply their knowledge by arguing hypothetical cases while acting for one side of the case.

Now, the Socratic Method is great for cultivating critical thinking and all students should be subjected to its rigour (to a certain degree). However, relying on it alone to impart a substantive framework for thought may confuse students who are less used to solving jigsaw puzzles by themselves. I also try to tailor my explanation of difficult but important concepts by using visual, oral and even kinesthetic delivery methods as each student has different ways of grasping and conceptualising complex ideas.

A mix of methods is necessary. As each class has different students, the time spent using the different methods varies according to students’ needs. In doing so, I hope to avoid leaving any one behind.

But, that begs the question of where should they go?

Key Performance Indicators
In all my courses, I set key performance indicators (KPIs) (my apologies for using overused management terms) for students and myself, and tell them how I expect that we can reach these KPIs together.

In law, it is a little easier to set KPIs for students because there is a very easy picture on which they can focus. In a professional school, regardless of whether they want to be practicing lawyers, students should have a fundamental degree of legal competency because that is what we are certifying them as having (amongst other things).

I discuss this premise with my students. Since they all seem to accept it, I tell them, as my former Company Law tutor4 told me many years ago,5 that grades for answers to hypothetical questions are awarded as follows:
• A: If it can be sent to a hypothetical client
and money charged for it.

• B: If there needs to be some amendments
made but the main points are covered.

• C: If there were some points missed.

• D: If some major points were missed but
nothing critical.

• F: If the answer to the hypothetical problem
displayed a serious lack of knowledge that made the student a potential menace to society who should not be unleashed on the unsuspecting public.

This works relatively well when I use an alternative benchmark of journal publication in my research based courses and I suspect it might work for most other standards. Students seem to appreciate this standard setting because it gives them something to aim for.

How about KPIs for myself? Every year, for all my courses I tell my students that the following are my goals:
Legal competency: To prepare them to be competent professionals with the legal knowledge and skills who will render services of a high standard to their clients;

Mental development: To facilitate the development of their learning, research and communication skills; and

Ethical awareness: To be aware of the people that may be affected by their decisions and advice and to empathise with their concerns.


Conclusion
I have tried to learn about my students, adapt my teaching methods according to their needs and teach my students about my methodology. In short, I have tried to design my course for students in any particular year while educating them about their needs and the process. I have been pleasantly surprised at how well they seem to have learnt.

According to a student’s feedback, “The thing about [Michael] is that he’s a very caring and considerate teacher who knows how to be gentle with blur students like me and at the same time be able to push those who are capable.” I am grateful that the student saw a method to my madness. I am also grateful that enough of my students appreciated the tailoring of my teaching for them to nominate me for the award. Of course, it could just be that I knew how to tailor my dossier.

Reference
Akao, Y. (1994). “Development History of Quality Function Deployment”. The Customer Driven Approach to Quality Planning and Deployment. Minato, Tokyo, Japan: Asian Productivity 4.


1. It is also interesting to note that this Buckingham product recently became one of the youngest full professors in the history of the University of Hong Kong.

2. The University of Buckingham was placed top of the National Student Survey in 2006 and 2007. The students were asked questions in the categories of Teaching, Assessment and Feedback, Academic Support, Organisation and Management, Learning Resources, Personal Development and Overall Satisfaction. Oxford was second place in 2007.

3. The Independent, Autumn-Winter 2006, p. 2. https://extranet. buckingham.ac.uk/alumnet/pdf/autumn-winter-2006.pdf (Last accessed 24 September 2008). It should be noted that despite this emphasis on teaching, Buckingham’s flagship Law School still managed a credible 20th out of 90 UK Law Schools in the Guardian league table over more established names like Nottingham, Leicester and Leeds.

4. This tutor has since gone on to serve Singapore in a variety of ways and I believe his success may in some part be due to his very clear thinking about KPIs.

5. It should be noted that much of my teaching skills and beliefs are influenced by the positive examples of teaching I received from my former teachers including my parents (who are both erstwhile teachers). As it is often added in the acknowledgement footnote of academic articles, any errors remain entirely mine.

 
 
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Inside this issue
A Teaching Re-evaluation
   
Close Reading as Critical Thinking
   
Small-group Teaching for First-year Law Students—Thoughts from a Tutorial Taskmaster
   
Teaching: A Learning Process for Towards a Student Driven Pedagogy
   
Engaging the Phenomenon
   
Thai Language Teaching at NUS
   
Learning from Failures
   
Learning Through Teaching