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Glean pointers on teaching and learning as winners of the NUS Outstanding Educator Award share their teaching experiences and
views in this issue of CDTL Brief.

February 2003, Vol. 6 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
My Secret of Winning Students to My Side
Professor Y.K. Ip
Department of Biological Sciences/ Associate Director, CDTL

As a teacher, I spend much effort finding out what my students have learnt in the past, how they had learnt these things, and how to facilitate their learning now. This is because I consider that knowledge is not simply statements or facts that students acquire. The word ‘knowledge’ actually means ‘to sport with ideas’. A knowledgeable person is someone who can play with ideas, not simply someone who can win a quiz game or score highly in a retention test. Hence, ‘to know’ something is never as important as ‘to understand’ something. To understand means that students have to select, organise, integrate the information obtained, and generalise through a process of reflection in the mind.

Consequently, the most important task I often have to do is to change the way students learn, because many of them take learning as the acquisition of knowledge from the teacher or from books. They do not understand the importance of connecting and integrating the information within the mind to construct knowledge. In fact, most students are so obedient and respectful to their teachers that they do not question what is being taught, preventing them from developing critical and creative thinking skills and strategies. This is especially true for the first year students in my BL1103 class.

In contrast, I believe students should always doubt the information that they receive, question what they thought they have understood, as well as try hard to unlearn and relearn. When they unlearn and relearn, they should think deeply about the matter and undergo a critical thinking process.

So in my lectures, I expose students to ‘academic controversy’ and present certain facts that seem to demonstrate or contradict certain principles. For instance, I pose certain queries like the following:

  • Objects fall spontaneously; but why does the column of water in a traditional osmometer apparently rise spontaneously?

  • Fever means an increase in body temperature; but why do you feel cold during the onset of a fever?

  • Diffusion is the movement of a substance from a region of high concentration to a region of low concentration. So, when no concentration gradient exists, does the diffusion of molecules stop? Will there be any more movement of molecules?

The answer to the last set of questions is ‘No’, which would then prompt students to realise that the definition they have learnt about diffusion must either be wrong or inadequate.

When posed such queries, the students may at first be confused. But it is precisely through this confusion that their minds get the necessary exercise to construct their knowledge. By raising their curiosity, students will naturally start to question the validity of their existing knowledge (i.e. what they think they have understood before) or even perhaps existing theories or dogma. By questioning, students will then unlearn and relearn, understand and thereby develop new insights to either construct new explanations or to invent new ways to apply what they have understood about the ‘real world’. It is through the process of searching for answers that they become independent thinkers—truly knowledgeable persons who are able to critique what they hear and what they read.

By comparison, the laboratory is a more suitable occasion than the lecture period to challenge students to develop creative thinking skills. Most of the time, experiments do not really work out as they should. It is only when students obtain results that deviate from others and those available in the literature that they have to come up with their own analysis and interpretation. Hence, when I design the practicals, I try to build in the elements of variability and uncertainty that are necessary to stimulate students to look out for new answers.

To be an effective teacher, one must take into account the students’ different cultural and educational backgrounds and be interested in finding out how they learn. Even if I teach the same subject every year, I treat it as a new challenge for each new term as the students’ doubts and the questions they come up with vary from year to year. I maintain ‘a spirit of enquiry’ to find out new, if not novel, ways to raise the students’ curiosity in the subject matter, to question what they have learnt, and to integrate new ideas with existing information in their minds. To be able to exert my influence on their attitudes towards learning, I believe in my own sense of competency in handling the students. Once I feel that the students have picked up the necessary learning and thinking skills to learn on their own, I make myself redundant, for ultimately they must develop as independent learners and practise life-long learning since I will not be with them forever.

Professor Y.K. Ip is a winner of the 2000/2001 Outstanding Educator Award.

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My Secret of Winning Students to My Side
Learning Communities
Teaching Insights
Teaching Tips: Developing the Curriculum for a Professional Clinical Course
Teaching Freshman Chemistry
Feeding Them for Life