To Teach or not to Teach - A Dilemma

Is it possible for students to learn themselves? Can they construct knowledge when they do not know the theories and formulae? Isn't it a waste of time for them, to pursue answers in places where they won't be found? Sound familiar? These are some of the usual objections from lecturers who have been tasked to practise student-centred teaching. Dr Chan Chang Tik, Senior Lecturer at the School of Arts and Social Sciences shares insights in the ever-evolving area of teaching and learning.

Research has shown that academic disciplines can be conceptualised into “hard” and “soft” paradigm as well as “pure” and “applied”. That is, disciplines with dominant paradigm are indicated as “hard” and those with the competing paradigm as “soft”. It is further categorised as “pure” or “applied” on whether the disciplines have an interest in the application.

Approaches to learning are quite distinct between the soft and hard disciplines. The former tends to be free-ranging, with knowledge building being a formative process where teaching and learning activities tend to be constructive and reiterative. On the other hand, the hard discipline emphasises on teachers informing their students about teaching and learning activities which are more focused and instructive.

In Chan’s study, which involved a total of 12 lecturers and 408 students from three institutions, results indicated that there is a significant difference in the learning outcomes, between the hard-applied and soft-pure disciplines. This is especially significant for the conscientious personality. One possible explanation is a conscientious student tend to be more organised, achievement-oriented and persevering. Rather than just being dictated at by the lecturer, they want to have more say in the learning process. They prefer teaching methods which emphasise on transferable skills, reflective practice, and lifelong learning.

Theories and methods may be necessary, but students can acquire them while working on assignments, either indirectly through readings and group discussion, or directly from the lecturer at the time when it is required (on-demand knowledge). As such, lecturers need to give more latitude to students - to take control of their studies, to decide and lead, and to be responsible for their actions.

Learning environments may also have a positive influence on the student personality, notably, those who are more neurotic. The neurotic student tend to be self-conscious, and shy away from group discussion. Consequently, a student-centred approach may be a problem with them as they prefer a highly-structured learning environment.

By placing students according to the "team roles" derived from Belbin Test, each member of the group can capitalise on each other’s strengths and manage any weaknesses, so as to improve his or her contributions to the team. A shy student may thus have a team role more suitable to his or her personality. In this way, students would be able to participate more positively in group work. When contributions are accepted by their peers, it also gives them a sense of worthiness and may even encourage them to open up and socialise. This would then help them develop critical thinking skills, analytic ability and conceptual understanding.

In online learning environments, either the individual or group-based activities are suitable for students of neuroticism trait. In this setting, they tend to be more at ease and participate more actively, simply because the online environment is not so intimate, and there is room for errors or wrong ‘answers’.

The Malaysian student still emphasises heavily on right or wrong answer. They sometimes find it difficult to accept when lecturers tell them responses could differ under different contexts. However, in the online environment, where their peers share many different views or opinions on a given scenario or problem, they may be indirectly influenced to accept multiple responses, instead of purely focussing on the right or wrong answer.

Using the findings from this study, Chan shares that the instructional approach employed by the lecturers teaching the hard-applied discipline may need serious reconsiderations. In the modern world where information is easily available on the Internet, the teaching approach should focus on acquiring knowledge, through the learning strategies and not on direct delivery of content. There is an urgent need for students to attain lifelong learning skills to stay relevant and employable, even after graduation.