There are many ways to teach and achieve teaching objectives.
I favour a multitude of approaches, strategies and methodologies
that eventually converge. This convergent process serves as
a mechanism to shape a scholar in a way that I believe scholars
I teach CM 1111 (Basic Inorganic Chemistry), a freshman
class with a typical enrolment of 350–400 students.
The task is: how to reach out to a class whose background,
aptitude and abilities cover two extremes of a spectrum?
There are many strategies to approach this challenge. First,
I address the fundamental principles with the students. Once
this foundation is laid, we have a common starting point in
Second, I emphasise on the knowledge creation, assimilation
and integration process, not the knowledge content itself.
The processing of knowledge based on fundamentals is like
learning how to cook, given a set of basic ingredients. You
do not need to learn specifically how to cook Dish XYZ if
you really understand the principle of cooking. Once you master
the science and art of cooking, you can create your dish and
off you go.
Third, the more able students need to be intellectually
challenged. My questions therefore are set at different levels.
The questions for these students are often those whose answers
are not easily found in undergraduate texts or even open literature.
Yet, the solutions will emerge naturally after a proper brainstorming
Fourth, confidence building is essential. Quite often, I
find that the ‘weak students’ are actually very
able, except that they lack confidence—the confidence
to try, to experiment, to challenge and to explore. Unless
they have confidence, they will not have the courage or commitment
to continuously experiment and explore until success is attained.
(Achieving success itself is a confidence booster, thereby
reinforcing the cycle of increasing self-assurance.) Because
such qualities take a while to cultivate, I, as their mentor,
often spend much time and effort encouraging these students
to help them build their confidence level.
Fifth, it is important to engage students in the 3Ds—Discussion,
Dialogue and Debate. When the 3Ds are carried out in the classroom
from Day One when the class is assembled and continued throughout
the semester, such classroom interaction will have a lasting
impact on the development of the students’ thinking
and communication skills. The Integrated Virtual Learning
Environment can also supplement classroom interaction, providing
an excellent forum that can take place anywhere, 24 hours
a day, 7 days a week. Once incorporated into the students’
daily routine (rather than being imposed), learning and thinking
become a natural process and appear less difficult.
Last but not least, the students must write. The students
cannot write if they do not think. They cannot think if they
do not read. By making essay writing part of my course requirement,
I compel my students to read scientific literature and engage
in the first step of the learning cycle since scientific writing
must be based on facts, evidence and literature reviews. Through
the process of writing, students learn how to gather knowledge,
judge, dissect and assimilate concepts—skills essential
in the learning of science. There is no better time to start
the discipline of writing than at Level 1 when the students’
minds are fresh and their thoughts are raw.
My first lecture usually starts with a promise and a caution.
On one hand, I promise a new learning experience that will
yield results over the long term. On the other, I caution
those who underestimate the task ahead—learning can
be painful at times because it requires mindset changes, sacrifices,
and, very importantly, the courage to seek new knowledge.
Professor Andy Hor Tzi Sum is a winner of the 2001/2002
Outstanding Educator Award.