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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
Teaching Freshman Chemistry
Professor Andy Hor Tzi Sum
Department of Chemistry

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 should be.

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 learning.

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 session.

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.

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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