I believe teaching is a form of customer service in which the teacher creates a learning environment that motivates the students to learn and supports them in the learning process. Instead of focusing on a particular teaching technique, the teacher should utilise whatever tools that stimulate the maximum learning in the students. I have been developing my pedagogy skills as a university teacher for the past seven years and that development has been a process of finding the best teaching practices as I aspire to produce engineers who can learn independently and apply knowledge creatively.
It is often difficult to motivate students particularly for large classes when interaction between the teacher and students is limited. Motivation occurs when students realise what they are learning is interesting and/or relevant. Once the students become interested and motivated, it would be much easier to encourage them to learn more about the subject and to inquire into topics beyond the course syllabus or exam paper. I attempt to make my presentation and lecture vivid with the help of audio-visual aids and real-life examples to stimulate students’ interest. If I have an experience or a joke about something related to my course, I will share it with the students in class. In my undergraduate fuzzy/neural course, EE4305 “Introduction to Fuzzy/Neural Systems”, I make use of examples such as ‘marriage’ and ‘divorce’ in human relationship to make the potentially dull concept of ‘fuzzy relation’ in fuzzy set theory more interesting. A number of animated simulations and video clips (e.g. a fuzzy cart-pole balancing robot) are also used to illustrate the fuzzy logic in engineering applications and to motivate students to put their knowledge into practice. I also attempt to relate the theory to reality by pointing out the current commercial products which use fuzzy logic technologies so that students are aware of relevance of the course materials.
In addition, it is important to develop a positive teacher-student relationship by caring for the students’ well-being and understanding their difficulties in acquiring knowledge. A good teacher should be committed to bringing out the best in every student with their passion for teaching and love for the students. Such an educational partnership will give students the confidence and trust in seeking assistance or guidance from the teacher. I maintain an open-door policy and proactively encourage students to come and discuss their difficulties with me. Instead of waiting for the end-of-semester evaluations, I attempt to monitor students’ progress and provide them with opportunities for feedback through means such as mid-semester quiz or assignment where students could react to what they have learnt so far and make suggestion for improvement. I also make use of the discussion forum in IVLE (where I act as a moderator to clarify or encourage discussion in interesting topics) to encourage peer-to-peer interaction and learning.
My experience has taught me that students learn most if they are active participators in the learning process. When I teach, I use strategies that facilitate student learning rather than transmit information one-way (teacher to student). For example, I believe in using questions to engage and involve students in the learning process. Whenever possible, I will move around the class to promote interaction among students and to post questions that allow them to express their ideas and thoughts. In small group teaching such as tutorials, occasionally students are asked to come up to the board to solve problems. Such practices help to increase their independence in acquiring knowledge and develop their communication and interpersonal skills, which are important for professional success. I often deliver my lecture within the period of 20 minutes at one time to keep the students attentive. During each break, problem-solving or challenging questions will be asked, and students are encouraged to discuss among themselves or even critique one another’s thoughts and answers. Such approaches not only enable students to recap what they have learnt in the class, but also help them appreciate criticisms or uncertainty in solutions that are common in a real-world scenario.
I find it important to provide students with hands-on learning experience in engineering education. Instead of merely imparting technical knowledge on the subject matter, the lab assignment of “Introduction to Fuzzy/Neural Systems” requires students to go through the fuzzy logic design and implementation process for a physical liquid coupled-tank control system. Questions are also posted in the lab manual for them to engage in critical thinking and to seek evidence/arguments to support the results obtained in the experiment. I also employed undergraduate students under the Vacation Internship Programme in the Faculty of Engineering, where students have the opportunity to work and practise on interesting projects that are related to my research and teaching. This has helped to keep the students abreast of current technologies and stimulate their interests in research. Many of these students have stayed on to continue doing research for their final year projects or postgraduate studies.
I believe there is no single teaching recipe that is optimally applicable to every teacher. A good teacher must be a continual learner in the field of pedagogy in order to constantly exploit new and advanced technologies as well as to develop the best personalised and innovative teaching practices in order to realise his/her educational philosophy within the context of education in the 21st century.
Assistant Professor Tan Kay Chen is a winner of the NUS Outstanding Educator Award in 2004.