Reflections: Making a difference in students’ learning

Reflections: Making a difference in students’ learning

by Lai Zhenyue

At Curtin Sarawak, the teaching methods in Foundation Engineering Physics focus on developing students into active learners through the innovative use of web-based learning and flipped learning approaches. Active learning environments are created within and outside the classroom to engage and fuel students’ enthusiasm towards the learning of Physics.

People often ask me why I chose to teach and I would quote William Arthur Wards, who said, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires”. That pretty much sums up my passion for teaching.

I was indeed inspired by a former teacher of mine who set my mind on the teaching path. She made a great impact on my learning and I figured that the best way to repay her efforts was to join the teaching profession myself and make a difference in students’ learning.

Prior to joining Curtin Sarawak in 2009, I taught in Singapore as a secondary school teacher, and I have found that teaching at tertiary level is very different from my previous teaching experience. At the Foundation level, I teach Physics to large classes of about 230 students in Semester 1 and 170 students in Semester 2. My students are of diverse nationalities, including Malaysians, Bruneians, Nigerians, Fijians, Singaporeans, Myanmarese, Filipinos and Vietnamese.

Most students who enter the Foundation programme are transiting from secondary level to a pre-tertiary level. Hence, the majority of them are adjusting to a changed teaching and learning environment at the university.

Horace Mann once said, “The teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron”. That means that if I wish to engage my students, I would need to continually introduce new teaching strategies that can engage them in learning, equip them with the skills to be successful and active learners and enrich their ‘first year learning experience’.

After researching on effective teaching and learning pedagogies, I subscribe to the belief that students learn best when they are actively involved in the process.

Here are some active learning strategies implemented in the Foundation Engineering Physics units to engage students in learning:

Use of technology and web-based learning

Emerging technology can be harnessed innovatively to enhance learning outcomes. Noting a high ownership of devices with Internet connectivity amongst the students, web-based learning was added to engage students in the virtual space. Online assignments, lecture videos and web-based forums are created to reach out to the students in the technological world.

Web-based learning was chosen because this approach enables active, independent learning whenever and wherever it is convenient to the students. It enables faster learners to learn and slower learners to catch up at their own pace. It offers a more flexible curriculum that encourages active learning.

Online assignments (e-Assignments) comprise of basic mastery questions. Students may choose to solve the problems individually or collaborate with a peer to solve the problems together online.

This is to encourage students to attempt problem solving while the new Physics concepts are still fresh in their minds, as well as build their confidence and prepare them for more active discussions during tutorial classes. This was affirmed by a student’s feedback that the e-Assignments made her strive to understand the subjects better soon after lectures and that it is an innovative system which has helped her to catch up on her studies.

Students can watch the lecture videos as many times as they need to become familiar with the concepts, enabling them to be more productive learners in the classroom. Feedback from the students on their perceptions of the online lecture videos towards their learning has been positive: One student remarked that online lectures are better and offer more flexibility, such as allowing him to take down notes at his own convenience.

Online discussion forums (Q&A format) on Moodle is used to encourage students to post or answer their peers’ questions and I will only act as a facilitator, stepping in to address students’ misconceptions or any mistakes when they arise. This learning platform enables a dynamic exchange of information and students build up their knowledge via interaction and cooperation.

The Flipped Learning approach

Students at Curtin Sarawak are among the first to be exposed to this new learning approach at the Foundation level in Malaysia. The Flipped Learning approach has the potential to transform a student from a passive recipient of information to an active participant in the creation of understanding.

In a Flipped Learning model, lessons are made available to the students online so that they can access whenever and wherever it is convenient. Since direct instruction is delivered outside class time, face-to-face class time with the lecturers or tutors can then be utilised for actively engaging the students in the learning process through more interaction and in-depth exploration of the topics to facilitate a deeper understanding of concepts.

Online lecture videos in visual and auditory formats are created by the unit coordinator for direct instruction and uploading onto the learning management system, Moodle. The Curtin Sarawak Library also provides a platform called ‘Open Educational Resources (OER)’ for lecturers to deposit learning materials for students to download.

After viewing the lecture videos, students would be equipped with the basic concepts. Discussions, problems solving and higher cognitive activities will then be guided by the lecturer during a two-hour Physics seminar. This Flipped Learning approach is currently being studied for its effectiveness on students’ engagement and learning of Physics.

Of course, besides adopting learner-centred strategies to enhance the learning experience of students, it is also important to teach from the heart and with great passion. This, I believe, is the best gift to the students.

Lai Zhenyue is a lecturer in Physics and Mathematics in the Science and Foundation Department of Curtin Sarawak’s School of Engineering and Science. She has 10 years of teaching experience and is a recipient of the Curtin Bentley Faculty Excellence in Teaching Awards – Teaching Citation Award for Approaches to Support Learning (Early Career) in 2013 and the Curtin Sarawak Student Choice Award in 2009, 2012 and 2013. Lai can be contacted at 085-443 851 or by e-mail to