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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
Personal Touch of a Teacher in the Learning Expedition
Associate Professor Chan Lai Wah
Department of Pharmacy

I joined the Department of Pharmacy as a lecturer in 1989. The department is a closely-knitted 'pharmily' with a relatively small student population. Though I did not have any formal training in teaching before I started, I was blessed with good mentors who provided me with a lot of guidance and encouragement, which have certainly helped shape my teaching philosophy-to make learning meaningful and enjoyable.

Pharmacy is a professional course and it is critical to equip its students with a body of knowledge essential for professional practice. Hence, one of my goals in teaching is to impart knowledge to students. The other more challenging goals I set for myself include stimulating students' interest in the subject and equipping them with the skills for lifelong learning. I also attempt to hone their critical thinking and communication skills to ensure that students can stand on their own feet when they enter the workforce.

The teaching goals I have set for myself are logical but not exceptional. Though there are many strategies I can use to achieve these goals, what is most important to me is that my students must feel comfortable with the teaching methodology I adopt. My style of teaching can be described as student-centred and personal. In this article, I would like to share my thoughts on how I relate with my students in their learning expedition.

I make it a point to put myself in the students' shoes when I design teaching materials. I imagine myself attending lessons that are difficult to follow twice a week over a few months. In these classes, there is hardly any learning though the teacher faithfully teaches. Such lessons not only kill students' interest and guarantee frustration, they are also a sheer waste of the students' as well as the teacher's time. Hence, I pitch my teaching at the right level as I do not believe in overloading my students with too much information. It is more important to cover the fundamentals well using good examples and illustrations, than to attempt to cover a lot of information and overwhelm students. Providing a set of concise and comprehensive handouts or a list of recommended reference books is also useful for students who wish to know more.

Interest and motivation are important components of learning. An effective way of stimulating students' interest in the subject is to help them see the subject's relevance to the real world using real life examples for illustrations. If the teacher can get students interested in the subject, they are likely to be motivated learners too. Motivation is as important as interest in the learning expedition. Thus, I encourage my students to ask questions and I praise them for their contributions. At the end of most of my lectures, I like to pose challenging questions to make students think more about what they have just learnt. Sometimes, I throw in a can of coke or a bar of chocolate as a prize for the best answer. Everyone in my class knows that no question is too silly and no suggestion will be scoffed at. One of the 'fatal' mistakes a teacher can possibly commit is to make students feel stupid and worthless.

A conducive environment for learning is essential. Though an air-conditioned lecture theatre with comfortable seats and state-of-the-art audiovisual facilities will impress students, these will not be adequate to hold their attention after some time. Studies have shown that the most students' minds start to stray after 15-20 minutes. A personal touch, humour and anecdotes can go a long way in engaging students. As a teacher, I feel happy when my students remember my name long after they have graduated. Similarly, students are happy when the teacher remembers their names. Therefore, I try my best to remember the names of all my students though this is becoming increasingly difficult as the class grows bigger. Sometimes my ageing memory fails me, but students know that I tried and they appreciate it.

Every batch of students is different. What works perfectly for one batch may not be so for another. It is therefore important to seek students' feedback from time to time: "Can you hear me clearly from the last row?" "Am I speaking too fast?" "Are you comfortable with the pace of my lecture?" These are some questions I frequently ask my classes. The students' spontaneous response to these questions enables me to adjust the volume of my voice and the pace of my lectures accordingly. Most students tend to keep quiet when they are asked: "Do you understand the explanation?" Hence, the teacher has to be able to read the students' body language and quiz them to find out their level of understanding. In addition, I try to find out how students are coping with their studies, how I can help them achieve their goals and I welcome suggestions on how I can help them learn more effectively.

I have been enjoying wonderful partnerships with my students so far and I am glad that they appreciate the efforts I put into my teaching. More importantly, students have learnt what they are taught-an ultimate measure of effective teaching. This is the essence of student-centred teaching. I have enjoyed my 16 years of teaching at the department and I am looking forward to many more good years!

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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