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This issue of CDTL Brief features articles based on select presentations at the Teaching Workshop on Freshman Seminars conducted by the Faculty of Science on 22 April 2009.

August 2009, Vol. 12 No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
At Last, Learning Can Really be Fun!
Vettai Anathanarayanan*
Professor Emeritus,
Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences
McMaster University
Ontario, Canada

As new entrants to the university, freshmen have high expectations about the opportunities to learn in a scholarly atmosphere which is different from what they had in their previous education. Alongside, they also nurture some apprehensions about their own ability to cope with the style and pace of teaching at the university. Those who teach freshman courses have, therefore, a responsibility to make these students feel at home in the university set-up and get them to think and solve problems on their own. The Freshman Seminar (FS) course initiated by the Faculty of Science at NUS is a unique approach to accomplish this goal. I have had the privilege of being involved in teaching the FS course offered by the Department of Biological Sciences (DBS) over the past three years. This paper comments on the course make-up, its outcome and suggestions for future offerings.

Course make-up

With a view to induce a sense of curiosity and adventure, the topic selected for the FS course in DBS was “From form to function: The amazing world of proteins”. The theme was dictated by the extraordinarily important roles that proteins play in the living system and by my own involvement in protein research for over 35 years. The course focussed on the intricate three-dimensional structures which govern the function of proteins in health and disease conditions. After an introduction to these aspects of proteins in the first lecture, students were divided into 3-member teams and assigned topics for their oral presentations in the subsequent weeks with instructions on how to gather data and present their findings. Each team presented two seminars—the first dealt with the folding of proteins into their unique 3-D structures and the second focussed on the role of misfolded proteins in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, AIDS, cancer and cystic fibrosis. During the presentations, students raised questions to clarify the presented facts and discussed the implications of the findings. The audience also assessed the performance of the presenting group in constructive ways. Subsequently, students posted their comments on the technical and academic aspects of the presentations in the IVLE forum set up for this purpose. The audience were given written assignments on different classes of proteins and their structure-function relationships. This helped them develop critical analysis and writing skills.

Additionally, in-class guest lectures were arranged to expose students to current research efforts on proteins, with special emphasis on experimental techniques. These were supplemented by tours to some of the major facilities in DBS such as the Proteomics Laboratory and the Electron Microscopy facility which house state-of-the-art tools for protein research, such as high performance chromatography instruments, protein sequencers, mass spectrophotometers and high resolution electron microscopes.

The freshmen seminar experience

Based on student feedback over the past three years, the FS course has been a great success. Among the several reasons for this success are:

the small class size,
the informal teaching and learning methods and
the lack of rigidity of tests and examinations.

While these are distinguishing features of the FS course, its most important characteristic is the manner in which it shows students that learning can be fun if they seek knowledge out of their own curiosity and apply the right learning techniques to acquire this knowledge. The onus of making it fun to acquire and analyse chunks of knowledge in a relatively short time, and to present it orally and in writing lies with the facilitator. He/she needs to find innovative ways to demonstrate the benefits of critical thinking, self-learning, teamwork, problem-solving, oral and written communication skills, and so on.

The course’s emphasis was not so much on getting students to accumulate facts on proteins and their functions as it was on the mode of their acquiring this knowledge through critical thinking. The nature and importance of critical thinking, highlighted in the first meeting, helped students in preparing their presentations, which required them to set up a logical scientific query and gather information to answer it. Built around this main activity was also a variety of learning and presentation techniques such as how to work in a team, conduct literature search, critically evaluate published data, organise ideas for presentation, prepare slide shows with clarity, develop oral and written presentation skills, answer questions from the audience, complete assignments and exchange comments via the IVLE. The quality of students’ presentations was uniformly high and on par with those taking upper level undergraduate exercises.

In these activities, my role as the facilitator was to pique students’ curiosity to explore. The small classes allowed an intimacy between the students and me and they regarded me more as their friend rather a ‘teacher’ in the formal sense of the word. Making students raise questions and solve problems was therefore a lot easier in the FS course than in many formal courses. Students soon learnt that they can accomplish a lot more this way than by cramming facts and reproducing them in an examination, and they started participating actively in seminar presentations and discussion sessions. Through these exercises, students learnt that learning can indeed be fun.

An important component of this course was the continuous feedback between me and the students. Students were constantly encouraged to comment on what could be done to make the course more effective and useful to all. Meeting students outside the class, in my office or elsewhere and asking for their thoughts on the course also helped in this regard. In addition, questionnaires were handed out mid-course asking students for their comments on the conduct of the course and suggestions to improve the performance of both students and the facilitator. This helped me to modify the course on-the-fly based on the class’ consensus. The guest lectures and lab tours were particularly welcomed by students. The invited speakers instilled a sense of awe in the students by evincing their passion for research and describing the experimental techniques they used to solve a given problem. During the lab tour, students felt privileged to be exposed to the state of the art tools for protein research and hear detailed accounts of their performance and use in health research.

Future directions

The freedom to conduct independent scientific exploration in an informal setting is the essence of the FS experience. This allows students to realise their full learning potential which is generally not the case in other courses. A similar but not identical approach is used in some of the courses at McMaster University where I currently teach and conduct my research. Based on my experience at NUS, I would like to suggest that the FS course be made available to more students by recruiting more faculty members to offer several FS courses in parallel. Since the goal of the course is to make students relish the pursuit of knowledge as an exciting exercise, it is obvious that only faculty members with a flair and passion to teach and motivate students should be invited to participate in these FS courses. Once students at large begin to appreciate the merits of the FS approach, there may be a demand to incorporate a similar self-motivated exercise as one of the components of other formal courses.

In conclusion, the FS courses demonstrated that teaching and learning need not necessarily be two different things. On the one hand, the students learnt mostly by their own efforts; on the other, they were given opportunities to ‘teach’ by sharing with others what they had learnt. As well, the facilitator also learnt new things from students’ presentations and discussions. In conjunction with the informal setting of the class, these courses show an effective, novel way for students to acquire knowledge in an enjoyable fashion. On my part, I thoroughly enjoyed teaching the course in DBS and would cherish this experience as one of the highlights of my teaching career.

* Professor Vettai Ananthanarayanan was formerly teaching the freshman seminar module with the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS.
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Inside this issue
Freshman Seminar: A Forum to Learn More by Teaching Less
FSE1202: Great Discoveries and Inventions
Freshman Seminar Module: A Mathematical Experiment
Promoting Individual Learning Through Small Classes
Teaching Sustainable Development to Freshmen
A Freshman Seminar in FASS: “Representing War”
At Last, Learning Can Really be Fun!