Three graduate students were awarded the SoH Teaching Assistant Award 2018. Olivia Djawoto, Lu Siao-Wun, and Eunice Lim Ying Ci were commended for their teaching excellence and support in the classroom.
Read their interview transcript below:
1. What did you do to inspire the students to get involved in the class?
Eunice: I think involving the students starts by being involved as a tutor. It seems counterintuitive to put the spotlight on yourself rather than the students, but when you share your own perspective on the material or topic, while encouraging other opinions (even opposing ones), students are more likely to see how they too can have personal, intellectual stakes in the subject matter. As a tutor, being involved also means doing whatever you expect them to do - being punctual, doing the readings, attending the lectures, and doing the homework (or some equivalent task) that you assign them. Students are likely to want to get involved when they don't feel like the only ones involved in their own education, and they do crave to be part of an intellectual conversation. I find pacing around the classroom as you speak very helpful too. It means your voice and presence are more consistent throughout the classroom, students are less likely to get distracted by their laptops and phones when you are constantly walking among them, and it also feels like you are one of them rather than an authority figure at the front of the classroom preaching to them.
Siao-Wun: I attempted to design more questions that are open for discussions. Those questions aim to learn more about what the students are thinking, and less focused on having the "correct answers". The questions designed are closely linked so as to encourage students to stimulate their thoughts. As some students may not be used to speak in class, the questions can work as part an ice breaking process. For instance:
T： "Overseas Chinese" originated from?
T：So, are all "Overseas Chinese" from China?
Independent learning is also important. When students provide an answer that seems too far away, I will try to lead by providing more questions to link them back to the main theme, and not leading them to answer questions directly.
Critical thoughts. Tutorial focuses in group discussion. Every week, one group will design 5 questions, and other groups will reply with explanations. The questions are related to the weekly theme. The group responsible for the questions will prepare to lead the discussions and provide relevant materials for discussion.
Olivia: Well, I think you'd really have to ask the students!
But since you're asking me, I don't think there's a straightforward answer for this because it really depends on the students you get, their individual learning habits, as well as how they interact in that particular group of people. Sometimes you get groups of students who already have the disposition that already encourages them to be vocal and active in class discussions so getting them involved isn't too difficult, and sometimes you get students who aren't as comfortable with that kind of environment and it is kind of unfair to force that upon them. A lot of it involves experimentation—trying different methods and seeing which they are more receptive to. Rather than forcing them to participate in a particular way, I try to make the classroom experience as diverse as I can by having different types of discussion (e.g. group vs. class), mixing up activities (e.g. anonymous written responses for those who are more comfortable with writing than speaking), and switching up the kind of questions and materials I prompt them with.
What I do in class is also very much informed by my own experience as a student—I wasn't the most vocal or outspoken in class so I'm always thinking about what a teacher could have done back then to encourage me to participate more. Certainly, it depends on how motivated and committed the student is, but I think disposition matters a lot as well. It could be a fear of speaking, insecurity, trouble with articulating their thoughts, or an overbearing classmate etc., and modifying the classroom slightly to help ease those tensions can go a long way.
Most importantly though, I think, is to be someone who is able to read the room well, pay attention to how students are responding, and be creative and flexible with how you construct your classroom.
2. How do you evaluate the students' behaviour in the tutorial class?
Eunice: I evaluate their behaviour based on their overall engagement in the class. Every student demonstrates engagement differently. In fact, most do not demonstrate engagement by being vocal and diligently coming for consultations. Some are quiet, but their eyes follow you as you speak and they take notes diligently. Some don't ever take notes, but are attentive, and ask good questions when they do. Some don't come for consultations, but are conscientious with their submissions and work better via email correspondence. As a tutor, it is best to evaluate each student on their own terms, since behaviour in this case is determined by their learning style, and this differs for everyone.
Siao-Wun: Generally, tutorial focuses more on the student discussions. But, there is a limited time and not all students have the same knowledge fundamentals, so it is important to ensure all students are able to complete the tasks in time.
Last semester, I assisted in the tutoring of HC3003 Overseas Chinese (in Chinese Program). Before the semester starts, the lecturer, Asst. Prof Ong Soon Keong and I will discuss on the weekly learning motives, as well as the expected results and how can we evaluate the students. It is important to maintain a close relationship with the professor as lecturers have different approaches and focuses in teaching. Asst. Prof Ong focused on the developing of students' independent learnings, and thus, one way to evaluate the students is to observe how they handle questions and the effort they put in when looking for the answers.
Olivia: As I mentioned previously, I try to make classroom activities as diverse as possible (with purpose, of course) so the method of evaluation really depends. With all of them, I am most fundamentally looking for whether they demonstrate the basic skills required of our discipline like close reading and the ability to make critical arguments. However, I am also always trying to get a read on how committed the student is to the class and to the work they are doing. Even if the work isn't great in terms of its execution, I can still get a sense of the effort they put in and how much they are improving from week to week. A willingness to try is important to me, and I do reward students for that where I can.
3. What do you think is the most important to get along well with the students?
Eunice: Don't be condescending or self-important. A tutor's intelligence means nothing to them if all they can see is your arrogance, meanness, and narrow-mindedness.
Siao-Wun: I tried to stand in the students' position and not enforce authority on them to provide answers or dealing with questions. By placing myself in their position, it is easier to know their learning difficulties. I have also make sure to remember all the student names by the third tutorial lesson. This will allow the students to feel that they are recognized and is a part of the tutorial lesson, and they are more willing to contribute in the lesson
Olivia: So many things are important in my opinion and it's hard to narrow it down, but if I had to pick one I guess it's to be a good listener. I think it encapsulates the qualities that I find important in teaching largely because I've observed them in teachers I've had who, in my opinion, were great. Being a good listener involves humility which I think is easy to forget when you're someone more experienced talking to someone new who might be struggling, being charitable when it comes to confronting mistakes, and a willingness to empathise and understand someone else's learning experience. I think I'm cheating a little here with my answer, but off the top of my head I think these are the things I feel are important for me to work on as a tutor and the things I would like to emphasize to new tutors.
4. What do you do to get along with the students as friends instead of just teaching?
Eunice: I talk to them about their obstacles as students and offer my own experiences for them to consider when making their own decisions. I try to push them to connect their research with their own interests and passions, rather than consider work and their life separately.
Siao-Wun: By giving the initiatives to the students in lesson, let them know that the role of TA is to assist them in learning. I tried to be more patient to listen to their enquiries and learn the differences in every student so as to provide assistance where necessary. There is also a need to build mutual trusts with the students, and I do enjoy chats with students on their hobbies and dreams outside lesson.
Olivia: I'm not sure I would immediately think of the relationship I have with students as a friendship exactly, but I do think there are a lot of similarities with it. There isn't something I do on purpose in order to have them think of me as a friend, but I suppose as I interact on a one-to-one basis with students, I'm inclined to gain interest in them as individuals. It's not uncommon for conversations outside the classroom to reflect more about their thoughts and feelings beyond the curriculum—for example, when I'm being asked about what doing an MA is like or what teaching is like—and in those conversations I also speak of my own experience as a person beyond just being a tutor. Naturally, I feel proud when they're excited to hear good feedback, empathetic when they tried hard but didn't get the result they wanted, invested in their success when they discuss their personal goals, a sense of camaraderie when they talk to me about their interests outside of the classroom... I guess it's just me being open to that kind of conversation which I enjoy anyway, and I suppose it helps that my "style" of conducting tutorials usually involves creating a more relaxed, low-stakes atmosphere where I'm speaking to them more as a guide than a figure of scholarly authority. So if any student is kind enough to think of me as a friend, maybe it's because of that. However, I don't think it's necessary for someone to have to be friends with students in order to be a good teacher. Mentoring relationships can take on many forms and still be rewarding.
5. What do you think is the most important accomplishment you get from the TA work?
Eunice: I feel most accomplished when students enjoy the learning process and are inspired to the extent that academic performance is no longer their primary goal or preoccupation. TA work also helps me find and improve my teaching style.
Siao-Wun: In the two years of tutoring, I feel that I have gained a lot, perhaps more from the students. The students never fail to impress me with their independent thoughts, good attitude and creativity. It triggers me to work harder and helps in building more passion in my personal researches as well. I am also glad when I noticed that many students who initially shunned from answering questions to one who speaks out and provide insight thoughts during lesson. Besides, the students' liveliness also makes me feel more passions. Whenever I met them outside class, their smiles and waves makes me feel rejuvenate. That makes tutoring a fulfilling task.
Olivia: As someone who isn't the most confident and self-assured person, I suppose learning to teach and realizing that I'm capable of doing something I was initially afraid of was a personal accomplishment. Tutoring in NTU was my first experience as a teacher, and it's definitely a great feeling to know that I was able to do something I was new at. But I think the highlights of my TA experience are in what I've gained rather than what I've accomplished—an appreciation for teachers, a realization that I enjoy teaching, and the opportunity to be exposed to and exchange new ideas with students every week. As cheesy as it sounds, it's true.