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This issue of CDTL Brief is the first of a two-part instalment featuring the teaching practices of faculty members who have won the Excellent Teacher Award for three consecutive academic years (2001/2002–2004/2005).

September 2005, Vol. 8, No. 6 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Teaching and Learning: The Journey of an Educator
Associate Professor Paulin Tay Straughan
Department of Sociology

I love teaching. In the classroom, I am able to forget all my administrative concerns for that precious hour or two, and enter into the fascinating world of knowledge and discovery with my students. The key to a rewarding teaching experience is an engaged audience-learning from my students just as much as they are learning from me. To be an effective teacher, we need our students' cooperation and commitment. I discovered from my own experience that if I can establish social relevance to what I teach, my students will stay focused on their journey with me.

As a sociologist, my primary objective is to highlight the significance, power and impact of the social environment and its agents in our everyday life. This is particularly challenging when students are new to sociology as a discipline, and when the modular topic is one with which students are familiar. This was the case with SC2205 "Sociology of the Family", a module I taught in Semester 2 (AY 2004/2005). Prior to SC2205, most of my students had little or no insight into what constitutes sociological inquiry and therefore, they struggled with the differentiation between a good General Paper at Junior College level and good sociological analysis at the university level. In addition, since the 'family' is such a familiar social icon, many students took up the module thinking they were 'experts' in the subject because they all came from families themselves.

To help my students overcome these hurdles, the first part of the module focused on deconstructing the commonly accepted perceptions of the 'family' as an objective entity. In their first discussion assignment, students had to interview respondents from three generations on what constitutes a 'normal' family. In the interviews, they had to find out how their respondents from different age-groups defined family structure and family roles. From the class discussion, students discovered that what constitutes 'family' actually varies with culture and time. Such hands-on approach engages students directly in their discovery of how society works.

Mindful of the fact that tertiary education serves to facilitate lifelong learning, I also try to impart to my students the necessary skills for self-learning using a two-pronged approach. First, I attempt to raise their awareness to the rich data present in the vast 'laboratory' they live in, and to question the social trends we observe. This helps to establish the social relevance of my module. One of the challenges I face in teaching the module is having to pull students away from their own family experiences, and helping them appreciate the fact that sociology studies trends. Therefore, while their own family lives are important, students have to be mindful that their personal experiences need not necessarily reflect the general trends in our society. In each of the discussion topics, students are required to interview a purposive sample to obtain firsthand feedback. Second, I help my students make sociological sense of the 'data' by asking the 'why' questions, and finding answers to these questions in the social environment. The readings listed in both the course and discussion outlines are sufficient, but not exhaustive. During one lecture session, I logged on to an online database and showed the class, step-by-step, how to do a literature search. A big part of the continuous assessment (CA) was an individual project which required students to identify a research question, do a good literature search on the topic, and collect qualitative data to augment their arguments. Students were told that the bibliography is the first thing I would look at when I evaluate the project.

Novice undergraduates tend to depend on content learning as a strategy for doing well in assessments. To encourage my students to move away from this to a higher level of learning where critical thinking and application skills are valued, I decided to have open-book examinations. It was not an easy decision as many of those taking this module were first-year students. But after much deliberation, I decided that it is never too soon to encourage students to take charge of their own learning. Hence, I structured the module along several coherent themes, and students were encouraged to source for information beyond what was given in the course outline and the lectures. This methodology was used in every student-led aspect of the module-the fortnightly discussion groups, term project, IVLE forum and the final examination.

To encourage students to continue in their quest for knowledge long after they leave the university, I also try to project learning as exciting, invigorating, relevant and essential in our interactions. I remember from my undergraduate days how tedious it was to be copying lecture notes for the entire duration of a lecture and how difficult it was to digest the material while trying not to miss the listings on the screen!

So, all my lecture outlines are written in PowerPoint format and loaded onto the IVLE before lectures commence. One concern staff have about posting their lecture notes online is that students may not attend lectures. However, I strongly believe that if we do not merely regurgitate what is given on the notes, the thinking students would soon realise that they can learn a lot more during the lectures. Thus, I put mainly facts and content-based information on the outlines, and then spend most of the time discussing applications to current problems families face during the lectures. I am glad to report that students' attendance throughout the semester has been good. To encourage students to discuss issues raised in the lectures, I also created forum topics on the IVLE and encouraged all to participate.

Finally, the hallmark of an intellectual includes the ability to critically assess information and the thirst for new ideas. In the process of encouraging my students to think 'out of the box', I also remind them of the importance of constructive criticism (i.e. when you reject one perspective, you should be able to offer an alternative) otherwise, it will be easy for others to dismiss your empty criticisms. In SC2205, many students started out arguing that family is a private entity and therefore, notions of marriage, parenthood, divorce and singlehood are private decisions. Throughout the semester, I encouraged students to envision a scenario where the state does not intervene at all, but allows family trends (e.g. marriage, fertility, divorce) to develop naturally. I posed this as part of the compulsory question in the final exam, and was very pleased to note some very balanced arguments.

At the end of the day, I do not expect my students to remember all I have taught them in the module. But what I want them to always hold close to their hearts is the journey we took together, and that they will remember me as someone who helped instill in them the joy of learning.

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Inside this issue
Teaching and Learning: The Journey of an Educator
"I teach to watch the lights come on": Reflections on Best Practices
Personal Touch of a Teacher in the Learning Expedition
Getting Students to Assess Each Other
My Teaching Philosophy and Approach