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In the current push to use new technologies in the area of teaching and learning, perhaps it is time to take a step back and reflect on the pedagogical pros and cons of such efforts. In this issue of CDTL Brief, we present several viewpoints on the topic of Fundamental Teaching Skills in an IT Age.

March 1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Helping Students Learn in the IT Age
Assoc Prof Daphne Pan
Director, CDTL

At NUS, much effort has gone into helping teaching staff to become IT-competent and incorporate IT into their teaching. But as we move away from the traditional, face-to-face classroom scenario, perhaps more needs to be done with empowering students to learn in the new environment.

Since students are often more IT-savvy and better equipped technologically than their teachers, more help is needed in enabling them to know how to learn and to accept learner responsibilities. Although we as teachers may be very clear in what we want to achieve, nothing may materialise if there is a gap in teacher/student expectations.


The past decade has introduced major changes in pedagogical assumptions. Most notably, the shift from teacher-centred to student-centred approaches has demanded the re-orientation in curriculum and course design decisions. With the teacher’s role becoming a facilitator of learning, not only is expansion/modification of instructional skills needed, but also training students to play a prominent role in the teaching/learning transaction.

Coming to us from the schools, our students should be persuaded that they have to actively participate in and contribute to their own learning. In today’s rapidly changing world with its information explosion, they must grasp that real learning is learning how to learn so that they can become life-long learners able to refresh the short shelf-life of knowledge. We should essentially stress that though their formal education may be completed at the university, their informal education will never end and will actually become more significant. ‘Spot on’ learning – an acronym coined by MINDEF for ‘self-paced on time on need’ learning – is essential for life-long employability.


Independent learners need certain skills. Arguably the two most important ones are:

  1. Self-management: With IT promising any time, any place learning, the potential for becoming independent learners is greatly enhanced. As the teacher lessens his/her control of the learning process, learners need to be more disciplined and have greater self-management. The abundance and increasing sophistication of IT-enabled resources bring growing distraction: video, audio, interactivity, and dizzying speeds may spoil learners, and what are perceived as boring tasks – e.g. learning the fundamentals – could end up being only a mouse-click away from extinction. Self-discipline and intellectual rigour must thus be inculcated.

  2. Learning management: Learners must know what to learn, how to learn, and have the ability to evaluate their own learning processes, i.e. cognitive as well as metacognitive skills. Generally, our students are good at learning information, either by rote or with understanding. They have learnt strategies such as identifying key ideas, making notes, organising and integrating new material learnt to facilitate recall, making connections and using images and other mnemonic devices. What is needed is a greater degree of reflexivity, the habit of reflecting upon what they are learning and monitoring how they are learning. Knowing something about intelligence and its management – Robert Sternberg, for instance, posits a theory of triarchic mental functions 1 – would be useful. One could then check to see if one has understood what is being learnt, acquire a repertoire of strategies and understand which strategies work best to facilitate the learning of different materials and for different purposes and contexts. One would also know how to use and manage time to best effect.


  1. Change mindsets: Take the time to clarify for students the rationale for the paradigm shift and the concomitant expectations. Reinforce through the way you teach and examine.

  2. Build confidence: As in parenting, if we don’t ease up on control and devolve more responsibility to students, they’ll never learn. Include them in designing the curriculum and assignments, consult them on the conduct of classes and, perhaps, involve them even in the assessment process. For instance, student-generated examination questions have been experimented with and research suggests that this approach helps to improve learning, with the examination serving to do more than test mastery2 .

  3. Encourage reflectiveness: Train students to think for themselves by:
  • Habituating them to ask questions and engage with what is being learnt;
  • Assessing them in ways that rewards the reflective habit;
  • Setting questions that demand more than recall of information;
  • Helping them to recognise barriers to learning;
  • Providing opportunities for clarification and negotiations;
  • Introducing good practices that will stimulate productive reflection (e.g. the keeping of a learning journal);
  • Ensuring that there is time/opportunity for reflection.
  1. Develop collaborative skills: IT provides huge resources as well as the means for learning from and working with others. Our school system tends to encourage competitive rather than co-operative learning, but the workforce we are preparing needs to work as teams. More than ever, knowledge is a social construct, built through collaborative efforts and dialogue among persons with different perspectives. In an IT-connected world, distributed solutions will probably be the norm. To encourage a collaborative mindset, we could, for instance:
  • Use team projects with assessment based on team rather than individual performance;
  • Socialise learners into acceptance of and respect for viewpoints other than their own;
  • Be a role model for good interpersonal skills.


“The illiterate of the Year 2000 will not be the individual who cannot read and write, but the one who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” (Alvin Toffler)

Even before the Year 2000 it is evident that the IT age makes its own demands: it creates new tools with undoubted potentials as well as problems. We as teachers cannot go on teaching the way we have always done; nor can learners continue with doing more of the same. The paradigm shift requires changes not just of degree but of kind, not just doing things incrementally better but differently, not only thinking critically but also creatively. Meeting these demands will not be easy but it has to be done. And it can be done, with a clear sense of our mission, substantiated by clear precepts and practice, driven by conviction and commitment and with institutional support.


1 Sternberg, Robert (1988). The Triarchic Mind: a New Theory of Intelligence. NY: Viking Press.

2 Please see, for instance,

  • Gillespie, Cindy. ‘Questions about student-generated questions’. Journal of Reading, 34, Dec 1990, 250-257.
  • Green, Donna H. ‘Student-genereated exams: testing and learning’. Journal of Marketing Research, Summer 97, 43-53.
  • Maddox, E. Nick. ‘The use of student-generated examinations: guidelines, benefits and cautions.’. In Vance, Charles M (ed) (1993). Mastering Management Education: Innovations in Teaching Effectiveness. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications. 241-247


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Inside this issue
Helping Students Learn in the IT Age
Why IT Can Never Replace The Lecturer
Computer Technology at NUS: Some Reflections
IT Showcase
Fundamental Teaching Skills in an IT Age
Is IT It?