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As we approach the dawn of a new millennium, it is essential that we equip our students with the necessary skills to cope with the challenges of a knowledge-based economy. In this issue of CDTL Brief on the theme of ‘Preparing Students for the 21st Century Workplace’, we present several perspectives of how various NUS departments have modified, or perhaps should modify, their curricula and teaching methods to achieve this goal.

November 26 1999, Vol. 2 No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Need For Structural Reforms
 
Associate Professor Yeo Swee Ping
Deputy Head (Admin), Dept of Electrical Engineering
Faculty of Engineering
 

The call to inspire students to greater heights is often directed at academic staff members because they are the ones who have to stand before the class to deliver lectures, conduct tutorials or even supervise experiments. Relying solely on individual staff members to incorporate various innovative techniques into their teaching, however, is not enough; there is also a concomitant need for each academic department or centre to consider introducing structural changes so as to pave the way for further improvements.

Recognising this, the Dept of Electrical Engineering (EE) has been exploring how best to restructure its curriculum and train students to meet the challenges of the future. With an emphasis on process skills instead of knowledge content, the Dept took great pains between 1996 and 1998 to trim its curriculum by 25%, thereby opening up opportunities for other features that are able to enhance the creativity and independent- study elements of the Electrical Engineering programme. Listed below are three of the major structural changes that have recently been implemented:

(A) EE1000 Independent Study

The most radical measure thus far is the EE1000 Independent Study module introduced in January 1998. Unlike regular modules, there are no prescribed lectures, tutorials, experiments or examinations for EE1000. Instead, the onus is on the student to plan for himself a series of independent-study activities that, if competently executed, will allow him to satisfy the requirements of this module (which carries a total of 6 Module Credits). Although the Dept has identified various generic categories of independent-study activities that the student may undertake under the EE1000 umbrella (e.g. literature survey, student competitions, group discussions, hardware design, multimedia courseware or even National Science & Technology Board’s National Undergraduate Research Programme), the only guideline issued to the students is that the activities they propose must be related to engineering. Each activity will be awarded a certain number of points (commensurate with the level of difficulty and achievement), and the students have to collect a minimum of 25 such points before they are deemed to have passed EE1000. This flexibility allows the student to select for himself what and how he wishes to learn. Consider, by way of example, the 100 teams which chose to participate in the student-robotics competition organised by NUS Innovators Club during the May-July 1999 vacation: each team (comprising 3-5 students) was given the liberty to define its own design specifications and had thus to struggle with implementation problems that were different from those encountered by the other teams during the fabrication and testing of the robots.

Another exciting avenue recently made possible by multimedia technology provides students with the opportunity to gain additional access to those experiments that are of interest to them. Using a web-based package developed by a team of EE researchers, any student can now remotely switch on the instruments stationed in the laboratory and collect additional experimental data in the comfort of his home. The Dept has included such extensions of experiments in the list of recognised independent-study activities that the student may embark on under EE1000.

(B) Interactive Tutorials

Also initiated in January 1998 are the interactive tutorials that all EE1-2 students have to attend—at least twice for each of the modules taken in a particular semester. The main features of these interactive tutorial sessions (as opposed to the other tutorials which continue to deal with problem-solving) are that the questions set by the course lecturers must be of the design or open-ended types and that the students are allowed to steer these brainstorming discussions to any other engineering-related topic (since the tutor is to assume the role of a facilitator instead of a teacher). Marks, accounting for 5-10% of the total grade for the associated module, are awarded for the contributions made by students during these tutorials.

One of the surprising findings from the teaching feedback collected since the introduction of interactive tutorials is that the EE1-2 students are more comfortable with graduate tutors (who are drawn from the top 10-20% of recent graduates). In view of this, EE Dept has recruited 28 graduate tutors for the 1999-2000 academic year to augment the pool of tutors who can be assigned to EE1-2 tutorial classes.

(C) Examination Format

It is noted that Singaporean students respond primarily to examination requirements. Unless structural changes are made to the format of examination papers, the majority of students will still adhere to their traditional mindset and not stray from the tried-and-tested methods that have seen them through their Oand A-level years. The only way to compel students to view engineering problems from a holistic perspective is to require them (where possible) to attempt at least one design-type or open-ended question for each examination paper. The following format has thus been recommended for course lecturers when setting their examination papers: Section A containing one compulsory question with several unrelated sub-parts to test the students’ breadth of coverage, Section B containing standard problem-solving questions to test the students’ depth of understanding on particular topics, and Section C containing design-type or open-ended questions to test the students’ capacity for critical thinking.

In addition, more examination papers should be of the open-book type. For too long has the examination system been rewarding those who are able to flawlessly reproduce from memory a plethora of facts and formulas during each two-hour examination session. However, there may be attendant logistical problems for open-book examinations if each cohort of 500 EE students hogged library books at the beginning of the semester only to return them after having sat for their papers. A simpler solution is to allow each student to bring in one A4 sheet on which he can write whatever he chooses so as to free him from the need to commit such data to memory.

Trying to propel students towards creativity and independent learning is not easy. All ancillary measures that can help to accelerate the process are certainly welcome and should be incorporated where possible. EE Dept’s experience has shown that the efforts put in by individual staff members have to be reinforced by reforms of the curriculum structure for such a campaign to bear fruit.

 
 
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