Teaching strategies and students’ learning approaches

by Dr. Lew Tek Yew

The Malaysian Quality Assurance (QA) system in higher education evolved from certain educational legislation and directives that aspire to achieve international recognition and excellence and make Malaysia the educational hub in the Asian region.

The Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) was established in 2007 with the overall responsibility for the local accreditation of higher education programmes and qualifications, and for supervising and regulating quality and standards in education providers.

The Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF) is a principle instrument that classifies qualifications based on a set of criteria that is agreed nationally and benchmarked with international practices, and which clarifies the academic levels and learning outcomes.

Academics play significant roles in the quality assurance process in terms of mapping the learning and teaching activities designed to meet learning outcomes as well as the assessment and feedback methods designed to assess the learning outcomes to the eight domains of learning outcomes as outlined in the MQF document.

The MQF emphasises eight domains of learning outcomes, which are significant for Malaysia. The domains are knowledge; practical skills; social skills and responsibilities; values, attitudes and professionalism; communication, leadership and team skills; problem solving and scientific skills; information management and lifelong learning skills; and managerial and entrepreneurial skills.

As a Tier 5-status institution in the latest SETARA rating of universities in Malaysia,  Curtin Sarawak is committed to developing the abilities, knowledge and skills of its undergraduates so that they are able to apply concepts and understanding of the business disciplines for the benefit of the society and the nation.

Moreover, they will assume intellectually demanding positions in industry such as consulting, market research and policy making. These types of work require students to go beyond the rote memorisation skills that characterise surface approaches and develop deeper research and analytical skills.

Hence, business students are encouraged to adopt the deep learning approach with the intention of achieving high quality learning outcomes such as analytical and critical thinking skills.

Among the graduates’ attributes, higher institutions aspire to produce critical thinkers among their graduates who are able to think outside the box, are creative, and able to make tomorrow better.

Biggs (1987) and Biggs and Moore (1993) have distinguished two common approaches to learning adopted by students. According to the researchers, the deep approach is characterised by a personal commitment to learning and an interest in the subject, and consequently, searches for relationships among materials and interprets knowledge in light of previous knowledge structures and experiences. The deep approach to learning is likely to result in better retention and transfer of knowledge and may lead to quality learning outcomes.

On the other hand, a surface approach to learning is characterised by an intention to acquire only sufficient knowledge to complete the task or pass the subject. Students rely on memorisation and reproduction of material and do not seek further connections, meaning or the implications of what is learned. Therefore, they are unlikely to experience high quality learning outcomes or develop appropriate skills and competencies.

Using students’ experiences of learning as the focus of studies, some researchers have explored the relationship between approaches to learning and other variables in the teaching and learning context. Students using the deep approach study longer, perform better, and tend to be more intrinsically motivated than those adopting a surface approach (Mashishi & Rabin, 1999).

Existing pedagogy embedded in accounting and business subjects is unable to prepare students adequately for the changing business environment since students are not exposed to the real business world. This is because the conventional lecture style approach will thwart students’ ability to learn real world skills. Hence, a combination of the traditional teaching method and a student-centred learning approach will develop relevant skills and knowledge to fulfil the requirement of a dynamic and complex business environment.

Moreover, there is a need to change the lecturers’ conception of teaching to take greater account of the student as a learner, moving away from a unidirectional lecturing format and toward a more interactive style, and an industry engagement model of teaching.

There are basically two basic approaches to teaching, which are the information transmission/teacher focused (ITTF), and the conceptual change/student-focused (CCSF) approach. The ITTF teaching approach is the teacher-centred approach with the intention of transmitting to students information about the discipline. Meanwhile, the CCSF teaching approach is a student-centred approach to help students change their world views or conceptions of the phenomena they are studying.

In classes where teachers describe their approach to teaching as having a focus on what they do and on transmitting  knowledge, students are more likely to report that they adopt a surface approach to the learning of that subject.

In classes where students report adopting a deeper approaches to learning, teaching staff report adopting approaches to teaching that are more oriented towards students, encourage students to construct their own knowledge, involve the students and challenge the students’ conceptions and current ideas through questions, discussions and presentations (Trigwell, Prosser & Waterhouse, 1999; Trigwell & Prosser, 2004).

At Curtin Sarawak’s School of Business, we are encouraged to use the ‘flipped classroom’ model of teaching. This method requires students to prepare well before classes commence using the learning materials posted in the online learning platform, the Blackboard. This allows face-to-face class sessions to be used for active engagement and discussions between students in order to develop their critical thinking skills. In addition, the School invites prominent industry speakers to share practical industry applications of business theories and concepts with the students.

To conclude, teaching strategies directly precipitate the learning outcomes of the students and there are strategies that can develop critical thinking skills. In other words, to produce critical thinkers, academics need to adopt teaching strategies that challenge the students to think likewise on a regular basis. Conceptual change/student focused approaches to teaching are more likely to lead to student abilities to seek creative and innovative solutions to future issues, problems and situations.

Dr. Lew Tek Yew is a senior lecturer in management at the School of Business at Curtin Sarawak. He has published more than 30 journal articles and conference papers. His research interests include human resource management practices, perceived organisational support, employee commitment and turnover. He can be contacted at +60 85 443939 ext. 3123or by e-mail to lew.tek.yew@curtin.edu.my.