“First figure out why you want the students to learn
the subject and what you want them to know, and the method
will result more or less by common sense” (Feynman,
1995, pp. xx).
Richard Feynman (1918–1988), winner of the 1965 Nobel
Prize in Physics, was an inspiring teacher. He brought his
own idiosyncratic style—a passion for the subject and
a mixture of irreverence and disrespect for received wisdom—into
teaching. “What came to Feynman by “common sense”
were often brilliant twists that captured the essence of his
point” (Feynman, 1995, pp. xx). His engaging manner
endeared him greatly to the students, especially the younger
ones, many of whom idolised him!
Feynman’s lectures were brilliant, deploying all his
sparkling wit, penetrating insight, and irreverence that he
brought to bear on his research work. When faced with the
task of designing a series of lectures to deliver over two
years, first to freshmen and then to sophomores, Feynman spent
more than two years trying to revolutionise the way beginning
physics was taught (Feynman, 1995, pp. xxi).
What was Feynman’s motivation and how did he handle
his students’ apathy? Why did he devote so much time
to change the way beginning physics was taught? One was that
Feynman loved to have an audience (Feynman, 1995, pp. xxii).
His passion for the subject and sheer joy from the experience
of teaching spurred him on. For Feynman, the lecture hall
was a theatre and the lecturer a performer:
“I remember when I was his student, how it was when
you walked into one of his lectures. He would be standing
in front of the hall, smiling at us as we all came in, his
fingers tapping out a complicated rhythm on the black top
of the demonstration bench that crossed the front of the
lecture hall. As latecomers took their seats, he picked
up the chalk and began spinning it rapidly through his fingers
in a manner of a professional gambler playing with a poker
chip, still smiling as if at some secret joke. And then—still
smiling—he talked to us about physics, his diagrams
and equations helping us to share his understanding. It
was no secret joke that brought the smile and sparkle in
his eye, it was physics. The joy of Physics! The joy was
contagious” (Feynman, 1985, pp. 9–10).
The other reason was that Feynman genuinely cared about his
students and regarded teaching freshmen as an important thing
to do. The third and perhaps the most important reason was
the sheer challenge of reformulating physics according to
his understanding, so that it could be presented to young
students (Feynman, 1995, pp. xxii).
There are hurdles that are inherent in any educational system.
For example, there has always been consensus among lecturers
that students are turned off rather than spurred on by compulsory
modules. In addition to the challenge of motivating a (often)
large class of disinterested audience who take the module
because it is ‘required’, the teacher is faced
with the daunting task of inspiring the students to learn.
The situation becomes even more demanding if the module only
awards a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ mark instead
of grades. The teacher may also lose the motivation to teach
if he/she has to teach the same courses repeatedly.
Neither Feynman nor any of us may have a solution. However,
I believe effective teaching can take place when the teacher
has a direct, individual relationship with the students. An
opportunity to interact with students on an individual level
often allows the teacher insight into reasons for non-motivation,
which may or may not be linked to a lack of interest in the
subject. Further, a student’s mental barriers regarding
one’s capabilities, personal problems, interpersonal
issues with the working team, personality and communication
issues and learning styles become increasingly clearer. Once
surfaced and tackled, managing the students’ motivation
and commitment to the subject could be easier.
The following are some teaching strategies that I have used
in my teaching of a compulsory module to motivate the students.
My first class is usually spent building rapport with the
students. I devote adequate time in the first session to get
to know my students by asking them to tell me something about
themselves and their expectations of the course. When the
students talk about themselves, the topics are endless—final
year projects, interests in reading, sports, movies and food.
I make it a point to take note of what they say. Through such
conversations, I discover amongst my students, writers who
willingly share their work with me, enthusiasts of computer
games who share websites and projects that stimulated my interest
in such games. I usually prefer such a session to icebreakers.
Though the latter may bring more laughter, no one is any wiser
about the other person at the end of it.
Knowing the students’ expectations of the course gives
me an idea about how I may need to conduct my classes. This
term (Semester II, AY 2003/2004), almost the entire class
said that they had no expectations and all they wanted to
do was pass. The students’ comments dampened my spirits.
However, I challenged them spontaneously: “How can we
give something 13 weeks of our life with only a sense of submission
and apathy? We all know it’s a compulsory course, but
let’s give it our best shot so that we can really learn
something that we can carry with us well beyond this classroom”!
When I am involved in something, I believe in giving my 100%
and nothing less. It is an attitude. Time is precious. Thus,
if one is giving away a chunk of it for a course, we might
as well do it with grit and excel rather than flow along indifferently
with the tide of compulsion. These may be ideals but I believe
in them and I make sure that they are conveyed to my students.
As the course progresses, my passion and interest in the subject
gradually ‘infect’ the students.
The experience of teaching is a two-way process. With every
new class of students, it’s a new set of vibes, dynamics,
challenges and thrills. Looking back at Feynman, his insatiable
curiosity, a questioning mind and a strong drive to tackle
any subject to the best of one’s ability may be reasons
to stay motivated in teaching. Therefore, by keeping the fundamentals
of one’s teaching objectives in mind and by striving
to explain complex issues in simplified understandable terms
in a fresh and dynamic way, one could keep one’s sense
of purpose, motivation and commitment alive. However, I am
not saying that I have defined a generic formula for teachers
to stay motivated. The teaching methods and strategies described
above to motivate students are those that have worked most
often for me.
Feynman, R.P. (1995). Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of
Physics, Explained by its Most Brilliant Teacher. Leighton,
R.B. & Sands, M. (Eds.). Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
Feynman, R.P. (1985). “Surely You’re Joking,
Mr. Feynman!” Adventures of a Curious Character as told
to Ralph Leighton. Hutchings, E. (Ed.). New York: W.W. Norton