I posted a while back with regards to "UTAR: Too Fast, Too Soon?", which by-the-way, has some of the most active and intelligent discussions on-going. Together with another post on UTAR, "Qualitative Insights", they are among 2 of the most popular posts (combined nearly 150 comments and 7,200 page views) on this blog attracting those I believe to be UTAR academics, students and alumni.
There was this extremely insightful comment which I'd like to highlight here, that essentially raises the question of what makes a good lecturer, as well as the difficulty and paradox of becoming a truly good one.
The lecturer from UTAR was responding to a comment by former scholar, Emily who gave some constructive criticism on the university's spoon feeding tendencies, for example, by not encouraging "further reading". Emily argued that for "many of [her] classes, you read the lecturer's notes and the text, memorise and embrace them - they are your bible, your religion, contradict and you're a heretic who will burn."
I was in the industry for 6 years, and then I come over here [UTAR]. I had no teaching experience. I picked up “teaching” skills through my own hard ways, trying to emulate the way I was trained overseas. It was not long before almost all the students told me they were unable to follow my lessons. They were basically unable to comprehend me if I did not translate some words into Bahasa or Mandarin. They were not able to take down notes on their own if we were to deliver our lectures without dictating to them the points or giving printed notes to them. Even outlines and handouts (with cross-referencing to textbooks and other sources as per the unit plan) were not sufficient for them, they said they were still lost. And whatever notes we wished to give, these had to be given to them a week in advance, if not, as the class representative put it, “we won’t be able to concentrate in class”.I actually don't think I have to write much more for I think what the lecturer has highlighted doesn't really need further elaboration. But that will really be underestimating the complexity and seriousness of the issue. In particular, it reflects the inherent difficulties in creating well-rounded graduates equipped with critical thinking and analytical skills.
Taking their feedback at face value, I then spent countless long nights preparing detailed notes, summarising, in simpler English, from the textbooks. It occurred to me, I was spoon-feeding them, but I thought, hey, perhaps that was how they did things in here.
It was not long before I observed them paying less attention in class – because they no longer needed to listen and write down anything during the lectures. During tutorials, I observed them not preparing in advance the answers to the tutorial questions. When asked, they replied, “your lecture notes are too detailed, we haven’t finished reading”. Some hadn’t even read it – I could see the photocopied notes, still crisp without underlinings, highlightings or jottings.
For the exams, I referred to the local, UK, Australian and US examinations, and based my teaching and assessment on these. In my first semester, 55% students failed my paper. Understandably, I had to give explanation to the Head for the failures.
The students were asked also and they replied that the questions were within their abilities; they had covered the topics before, and had practised same difficulty-level questions before in tutorials. But they had not finished studying the lecture notes and practised the tutorial questions. And most importantly, they said they found the exam areas “too wide. The lecturer did not narrow down the areas for us to revise for the exam, so how to score?”
In my next semester, with a new group of students, I gave printed lecture notes again, and kept advising them to check this or that textbooks and web-sites to get more informative materials for their assignments and coursework. I told them to have confidence in their abilities to do research, do not underestimate themselves as not being of the same level as students from other universities. Then I told them I expected to see them presenting a solid, well-research assignment in class. They had something like 2 months to do the group assignment and presentation.
I discovered during the presentation that they “cut and paste” materials from the Internet and any textbooks. Despite my cajoling them to have more eye-contacts and refer less to their notes/slides when presenting, they failed to do so. Come Q&A time, I asked for their original opinion and inputs, telling them they would get marks no matter how much they disagreed with what they had picked up from my class or the books. What I wanted was creative, original opinion. They remained silent or repeated the points from the notes and textbooks. I asked them, when did they started their work – they started five days ago. Why? “Because we were rushing other assignments...” When were those assignments given? "Beginning of the semester.”
For the exam, again I referred to local and overseas standards, with adaptations. I also watered down some of my questions and I confidently thought most would pass. In fact, some of the questions were similar to the case-studies they had tackled in the tutorials(or rather, were given answers since they did only minimal work and remained silent during class, forcing us to have to give them the answers). That semester, 45% failed. My head respectfully moved me to another subject, saying that perhaps another colleague could handle that subject better.
Ever since then, life gets “better” for my students. I still maintain my high standards, but extensive spoon-feeding and “narrowing of exam topics” are given. Articles are photocopied in advance for them, and once a while, I still receive groans like “aiya, why so many one…how to finishlah….”
At the end of each semester, we lecturers often have to ask our students to do lecturers’ evaluation (evaluations are done on-line). Often, those of us who conduct their lessons ala-"Utar" style get impressive feedbacks, with students giving comments like “he is so helpful” (read: give detailed notes, photostat articles for them and give exam tips) or “she delivers her lessons so well and interestingly” (read: tell jokes in class, give them answers, play games, cover only easy parts of the syllabus, leaving out the difficult ones).
Those of us who are tough, who insist on not spoon-feeding them or adhere to high standards often get lambasted in their evaluations “she is never punctual for class” (ticked off one or students for being late), “we learn nothing from his class” (ticked them off for not preparing for their tutorials and made them do the questions & discuss during class itself) or “he always wastes time talking about issues irrelevant to our syllabus” (discussed current issues pertaining to the economy, unemployment among graduates of the same discipline and social environment). These lecturers are left praying that the exam results won’t be so disastrous, since if that were to happen, the evaluation comments will definitely be taken into account. (usually the head will try to be fair and speak to the lecturers first regarding their evaluations, to hear their side).
Some of us do not have “insecure and unintelligent” nature, but for the sake of “enhancing appearance of superiority”, wouldn’t it be wise for them to start learning how to be?
I understand and appreciate whatever strong comments Emily and the rest have made so far in this and other blog on the Utar lecturers. Perhaps my story will give you all a chance to hear “the other side” and form your own conclusions.
Having been here for over 2 years, and having gone through all that above, I can say I am still hopeful, i.e. I am not that put off by the type, quality or attitudes of many students that we are having here. After all, when lemons are handed to us, we have to try make lemonades out of them.
Even so, I feel that if only the students have the right quality and attitude, this will go a long way. I am of the opinion that it does not matter if the students, at the point of entry, were to have poor SPM, STPM or whatever entrance exam results. What is important is their willingness to change themselves, make that commitment and go all way out to achieve something for themselves.
We lecturers here are trying our best to firstly, address the gap in the students'academic abilities and English, and secondly, to bring them on par with the international university students. We can only do our level best, but how are we to achieve our desired results if year in, year out, the students give us the feedback that “we want only that piece of paper that will get us a job, so please teach only what you want to examine, the rest we are not interested”.
I sometimes wish there are 70 or 80% Emilys in my fac, it would have made my teaching experience here so enjoyable and meaningful. True, we have our fair share of 1st class Honours students here, I have taught many of them myself. Someone hits the nail on the head by saying that in UTAR, the 1st class honours students are the truly good ones, while those getting 2nd class and below are, well, what can I say.....
Here, most of us are overworked, but whether we are being appreciated by the students, the management and community....that is a big question. But then, we must always remain positive and do our best.
While the concerned raised was specific to UTAR, it obviously isn't unique to the college and is probably prevalent in most, if not all of our local private and public universities.
I'm certain that many other academics ploughing this blog will have their "stories" to tell as well. Let's hear from students and lecturers, or even the university management for the relevant views as well as how this problem may (high hopes here), be resolved.
I will write on my personal contrasting experience at Raffles Junior College in Singapore, and my undergraduate years at Oxford in Part II to this post. This type of comments here certainly makes me feel like I'm doing something useful with my time spent running this little blog. ;)