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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
Learning Communities
Associate Professor Philip Holden
Department of English Language & Literature

When you read this article, we will be starting a new semester in a variety of teaching situations. Personally, I will be grappling with new challenges in three new modules. In my first module, I will be trying to preserve seminar-style teaching in an introductory class that potentially may exceed 40 students. In my second, I will be working with two teaching assistants on a more advanced course which, since it has been designated as a Singapore Studies module, will attract students who will not be majoring in my area of teaching specialisation: this is both an opportunity and a challenge. Finally, I will be sharing teaching on a graduate module; it will be taught in the evening, and the majority of students will be taking a part-time degree, balancing work, family responsibilities and study. The problem I anticipate here will be to maintain academic standards while at the same time acknowledging the real difficulties such students face.

At NUS, each of us faces a unique teaching situation: in a recent discussion with colleagues from other faculties, I learned that one considered a class of over fifteen students as large, while another wished for ‘small’ classes of under 50. As a recipient of the 2001/2002 Outstanding Educator Award, it would be easy for me to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, and offer a number of teaching tips, some of which will be relevant to each of us. However, there are websites and library resources that could do this better than I can (for instance, the excellent Berkeley Compendium of Suggestions for Teaching with Excellence, the URL of which is given at the end of the article). Thinking back, the one factor that has made the difference in my own teaching in the past, and which I think we need to give greater attention to at NUS, is the presence of community. Practices such as talking to colleagues about teaching strategies in informal settings, of having non-academic staff sitting in on modules, and of getting feedback from and discussing pedagogy with students outside of formal structures seem to me vital in developing a vibrant learning community.

In teaching, and indeed in university life in general, it is often difficult to realise the distinction between structures and communities. Structures are put in place for specific reasons, and the best structures will be flexible enough to allow communities to grow within and around them. An example of such a structure is the new peer review process for teaching evaluation. The process has clearly been exhaustively thought through, and in my experience can in itself enable ongoing discussions regarding pedagogy between different faculty members. It cannot, and should not, however, replace the value of semi-formal interaction in a non-evaluative setting. Structures can be easily changed by fiat, but communities need time to form, and need nurturing in order to grow: in times of rapid structural change communities may become fragmented, damaged or disappear.

In my teaching in the coming semester, I have thought out some strategies through which I would hope to foster the growth of learning communities. First, I hope to meet with my students informally outside of class time, over lunch or through other activities. Within the bounds of normal standards of academic confidentiality, I think it is important to discuss matters to do with choices in syllabus design and administrative practice with students. Students in my experience are often reassured if they discover the rationale for deadlines, grading conventions, and so on, which may seem to them initially inexplicable. If we are open to criticism, presenting decisions made personally, or at the departmental or faculty level as solutions to real dilemmas, we encourage students to become part of the solution. Indeed, students will often make useful suggestions—at times blindingly obvious—that we have not thought of.

Secondly, I would hope to build relationships with administrative professionals and non-academic staff with whom I work, which involve us gaining knowledge of each other’s roles. Faculty are often quick to forget the important part such staff play in teaching, and I’ve often been surprised in NUS at the gap between faculty and other staff in terms of knowledge of each other’s work: for me, indeed, this is one of the biggest differences between university life in Singapore versus other universities I have taught at. Again, informal contacts and discussion of dilemmas as dilemmas, not as demands, can help here: many non-teaching staff have qualifications and experience that are not tapped on, and, with encouragement, can become much more active and autonomous members of a learning community.

Thirdly, I’ve resolved to try to increase the semi-formal space of interaction regarding teaching, hopefully by offering a departmental seminar not on research, but on a teaching issue. Most departments and units hold regular seminars, but they tend to be largely on research topics, providing opportunities for the testing out of a conference paper. Yet teaching is just as vital a topic, and can be the subject of equally intense intellectual debate.

When part of a team giving input into a new building design at NUS, I requested space for informal ‘interaction spaces’ in the building where students and faculty members could meet informally and chat. A Singaporean colleague noted that such spaces existed at Cambridge, but that they were called pubs. Students who return from the Student Exchange Programme regularly tell me that the classroom environment at their host institution—frequently an Ivy League school, a top Asian university, or a Russell Group university in the UK—is often similar to NUS, but that the host institution possesses something extra: a campus atmosphere of learning, fostered through informal and autonomous community ties. Education is enabled not just in the interaction between student and faculty member, but by a host of other factors, of which community is surely a valuable and neglected one.


Davis, Barbara Gross; Wood, Lynn & Wilson, Robert C. (1983). A Berkeley Compendium of Suggestions for Teaching with Excellence. University of California at Berkeley. (Last Accessed: 17 December 2002).

Associate Professor Philip Holden is a winner of the 2001/2002 Outstanding Educator Award.

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