When I was approached to write an article on my teaching techniques, I was puzzled as all the techniques I have been using can be found in the existing publications. Therefore, I decided to offer a small personal opinion on learning to teach instead of specific teaching techniques. This is because one of the most important things that I have learnt in my 10 years of teaching at NUS is that to be an effective teacher, one has to first be a good learner.
I wanted to be a teacher since young. However, when I started teaching at NUS in 1995, I did not know much about what exactly I should do, and started worrying about whether I can do a good job of educating younger generations. These worries constantly motivate me to learn how to teach better throughout these years.
In the beginning, I approached CDTL for help and became one of the regular “students” there. Through CDTL’s seminars, I learnt good teaching practices, skills and techniques which gave me a very good start. In addition, I also found that books on pedagogy can also be a good source of well-established teaching techniques. To practise these techniques effectively and professionally, however, requires more than just attending seminars and reading books.
I decided to learn more from real-life examples of good recognised educators. I sat in the class of Professor J.N. Reddy, a visiting professor from Texas A&M with many teaching awards. The clarity in the classroom presentation and the convincing reasoning skills of Professor Reddy left a very deep impression in my mind I also learnt a great deal from Professor Patera from MIT through SMA teaching activities. Professor Patera creates a very active learning atmosphere in the class through the asking of pertinent questions. Because I tried to apply these excellent practices, my own teaching efforts have improved throughout the years, and I am more and more confident teaching in the classroom.
An occasional informal chat with colleagues also presents a good opportunity to learn some tricks. For example, the teaching-by-conversation technique that I use often in classroom-teaching is motivated by a lunch-time conversation with Professor C.M. Wang (a multiple educational award winner at NUS) who mentioned his idea of putting questions in his lecture notes.
As a non-native English speaker, effective classroom presentation in English has indeed been a big challenge for me. I knew that I had to break the language barrier, and I did it through 1) recording and listening to my own lectures; 2) consulting the lecture tapes by Professor William Anderson that are commercially available. I have to admit that during these years of teaching I have, in fact, behaved more like a hardworking student rather than a lecturer. My skills in oral presentation have also improved significantly, thanks to these self-improvement activities. I am very proud of the fact that I can now deliver a technical presentation in a classroom effectively in three languages: English, Japanese and Chinese.
It is often more important to conscientiously try and learn from the students and to grasp the level of understanding among students on a particular subject, without which it will be difficult to effectively apply any teaching techniques or skills. This application is dynamic in nature and hence contingent upon the development of the class. Therefore, the lecturer needs to be adaptive, and a ‘two-way-traffic’ environment needs to be present at all times. Questions should be properly designed and discussions should be conducted with the effective transfer of knowledge and skills in mind. This ‘two-way-traffic’, with its emphasis on effective interaction, is also useful in diagnosing ‘problem areas’ in a student’s grasp of the topic. Furthermore, technical questions and general feedback from the students are particularly useful in gauging the level of understanding of the students, identifying their weakness and strengths in order to take actions in modifying teaching procedures, adjusting the pace of delivery, re-organising teaching material, etc. These adjustments, when made wisely, are extremely important to maximise both the outcome of teaching as well as the potential of students.
I believe that the outcome of a teaching activity should be judged by how much knowledge is absorbed and how much creative skills are mastered by the students, and not how much material is taught or delivered by the lecturer. With this outcome defined as the ‘objective function’, one can learn through many possible ways to find out and to modify his/her way of teaching to optimise this function. In conclusion, it is my belief that students learn better when the lecturer is also learning.