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Diversity in students contributes to the cultural richness of a university and makes it a cosmopolitan community. However, educating a group of heterogeneous students requires teachers to have a clear understanding of the various dimensions of diversity in classrooms and adopt appropriate teaching approaches and materials to cope with the pedagogical challenges of a Heterogeneous Student Body.

July 2003, Vol. 6, No. 7 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Self-help Material for USP Students
Associate Professor Kang Hway Chuan
University Scholars Programme, NUS

An undergraduate in the University Scholars Programme (USP) takes eight first-tier modules. Of these, one is a compulsory writing module and the other seven, designed to provide breadth to the curriculum, are broadly classified into two domains: Science & Technology (ST) and Humanities & Social Sciences (HSS). Currently, students from the science-based faculties take three and four modules from the ST and HSS domains respectively; students from arts-based faculties take three HSS modules and four ST modules.

From the above situation, it is evident that USP students need to cope with a rather demanding distributional requirement. In addition, although the modules in the Scholars Programme are not difficult in terms of factual content, they are generally somewhat sophisticated. Modules in the ST domain begin discussions of science/engineering/technological/mathematical concepts generally at a rather elementary level, but proceed rapidly to rather sophisticated levels within one semester. The same situation applies to HSS modules.

For instance in Fundamental Concepts of Physical Reality, a module that I am familiar with and had taught in semester 1 of AY 2002/03, the discussion began with the students writing a paper on their perceptions of physical phenomena, proceeding to Newtonian ideas of absolute space and absolute time, continuing through to Einstein’s relativistic space-time, and then ending with a discussion of the equivalence of mass and energy. Such a progression (typical of Scholars modules) is meant to bring the students to a non-trivial (perhaps, second-year level) appreciation of major ideas in the field even though each module generally begins from ‘scratch’.

Given the above, a problem faculty members teaching Scholars modules can expect is the difficulty of conducting a sophisticated discussion of concepts when a significant number of the students have either no background or only a rudimentary understanding of the subject. This problem is especially more acute for the ST modules perhaps because of the widespread perception that science, mathematics and engineering are difficult or, worse, merely for those who indulge in technical matters.

In any case, the faculty members teaching ST modules in the Scholars Programme have recently started discussions on how self-help material in science/mathematics can be compiled for the students. The aim is not to use this material as a substitute for the initial elementary/introductory material that each Scholars module invariably contains, but to help students recall what they ought to have encountered in high school. It is hoped that this effort can help some students who come into the programme with deficient backgrounds in science and mathematics. At least, if the students feel less discomfort with science/mathematics, it would be a big step forward in helping them to handle their work in the ST modules. The compiled material is also intended to help students who have gone for two years of national service recall some essentials of what they have learnt in high school.

The material that we hope to put together is rather simple. There are numerous introductory books on science and mathematics that can be used. Besides, many introductory physics texts also have mathematical appendices that are focused on the basic mathematical skills/knowledge required to ‘do the physics’. A number of faculty members are currently looking through these books and appendices in order to work out a ‘roadmap’ to guide the students through this self-help material. Though this ‘roadmap’ is probably going to be our only input, it is deemed to be rather important given the huge amount of available introductory materials in science/mathematics. Indicated on the roadmap will be a sequence of readings, specific exercises or problems found in specific pages/paragraphs of selected books that the students should work through according to a timetable. In addition to readings/exercises from texts, we are looking at including CD-ROMs as interactive learning materials. As the students work through the path indicated on the roadmap, they will continually self-evaluate their progress.

We have discussed some operational details, and one possible operation mode is as follows:

  • An evaluation/assessment will be set during the admission exercise,

  • Results of the assessment will be used during student-mentor discussions to determine if the student requires the self-help material,

  • The student will be encouraged to make use of the material if he/she does not have a strong background. However, the material will also be made available to everyone,

  • The student will keep a log as he/she works through the material. Though faculty members will be available for help/consultation, the students will have to put in effort to work through the exercises/problems (i.e. it will be a student-driven effort and no model answers will be provided until the students have worked out their own solutions), and

  • There will be no set time frame to work through the material available.

Ultimately, the self-help effort is meant to achieve two things: to help students learn/reacquaint themselves with some introductory mathematics/science, and perhaps more importantly, to boost the students’ confidence in dealing with mathematics and science.

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Inside this issue
Empowering a Diverse Student Population
Strategies for Achieving ‘Cultural Synergy’ in a Culturally Diverse Student Body
Coping with a Heterogeneous Student Body
Self-help Material for USP Students