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

October 2005, Vol. 8, No. 7 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Learning—A Matter of Life and Death
Associate Professor Seah Kar Heng
Department of Mechanical Engineering

The French feel a sense of shame if they cannot write grammatically correct French. The Germans and Japanese are equally meticulous when they write in their respective native languages. Why then are ethnic Chinese Singaporeans largely nonchalant when it comes to perfecting their written Chinese? I think the main reason is that there is no necessity for them to write in Chinese once they leave school. One might go as far as to say that there is no longer any need for them to read Chinese characters since everything is printed in English here and an English translation of the Chinese text is always available. Thus, it is human nature to select the path of least resistance.

However, there are Singaporeans who take the trouble to learn to read and write Chinese well in their adult years when learning a language is no longer as efficient as it used to be in their younger days. They do so because they wish to possess a sense of identity, are enamoured of the Chinese classics and wish to enjoy them in their original versions, or their careers take them to China. In the same token, some devout Muslims spend much time and effort in learning Arabic so that they can read the Quran in its original sacred language. Likewise, I persevered through demanding Hebrew and Greek lessons and sat for tests and exams at Queen's University for a year each in order to read the original scripts of the Old and New Testaments.

From the above examples, one can deduce that students are motivated to learn only when there is a need to. When there are competing demands on their time and energy, most students will optimise their resources by investing them only in things that really matter. So if we want our students to learn anything at all, it is necessary to drive home the point that they are learning it 'for their own good'. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's1 advice to "teach that they can learn more"1 seems to suggest that it is no longer of paramount importance for us as lecturers to teach students for their own good, but we should counsel them to learn for their own good instead. Although the emphasis has shifted from teaching to learning and the onus to learn now rests on the students, we, as lecturers, still need to guide students in that direction.

For all living creatures, the quest for survival is the ultimate motivation. For example, to survive a cold and protracted winter, squirrels will spare no effort in storing up as many nuts as they possibly can. Likewise, migratory birds are motivated by the same reason to fly thousands of miles to warmer climes every autumn. Similarly, students will be motivated to master any subject only if it is a matter of life and death.

No matter what subject I teach, I always drum into my students the drastic consequences of not grasping the essentials of the subject matter. I remind them that if they do not know how to answer one of my test or exam questions, all they lose is some marks and a corresponding grade point. But if they cannot solve a problem for their future employers, it could cost them their jobs, their livelihoods, if not, their very lives. Similarly, if a law student writes something stupid when answering an exam question, he gets penalised in terms of his exam results. But if he says something stupid in court as a litigation lawyer, he could lose an important case, not to mention his professional reputation.

The situation is equally poignant in the NUS Formula SAE race car project that I am currently supervising. I tell my students frankly that if they do not understand the fundamentals of mechanical engineering and make an error in the calculations, the race car that they design and build from scratch could fail, and the driver could meet with a tragic accident. Since my students are going to drive their own race cars at an annual international competition in USA, it behooves them to check their calculations meticulously before building the car. This is indeed a matter of life and death with no room for error. As the saying goes, "As you make your bed, so you must lie in it", civil engineers know very well that failure to grasp the fundamentals of structural engineering can result in the eventual collapse of a bridge or building.

It is this quest for survival that motivates learning, whether in an educational institution or in society. My students will ferret out from books and the Internet, information that I have not imparted in class so that they can use it to complete their projects on time or to proceed with their research and earn a degree. They even do it to save themselves precious time and money. For example, a few enterprising students of mine have published a concise summary of my textbook, Manufacturing Processes, to save themselves time from flipping through the book during the open book exams. On the surface, this might appear to be a classic case of exam survival. However, I have heard reports that the students later sold the publication to their classmates to defray their school fees. This is also survival, but in the economic sense.

While it is the duty of every student to learn, it is our responsibility as lecturers to convince our students that what they learn is truly a matter of life and death. Once we can achieve this, I believe half the battle is won in our pedagogical efforts. Students will be motivated to learn for their own good, thereby eliminating the problem of spoon feeding and 'forced feeding'.


1 Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally 2004 Speech "Our Future of Opportunity and Promise", Sunday, 22 August, at the University Cultural Centre, NUS. (Last accessed: 20 October 2005).

 First Look articles

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Inside this issue
Learning-A Matter of Life and Death
Writing as Dialogue
"I Hear You": Using Student Feedback to Improve Your Teaching
Exploring the 'Maze' of Teaching
Good Teacher and Macroeconomics