11 June 2012

In pursuit of a successful student and teacher

By Christina Yin

There was once Hermione Granger’s doppelganger in my class. I don’t know if he can make a successful vat of polyjuice potion or break a dragon out of a gnome’s vault, but this student definitely produced among the best assignments and gave some of the most insightful written or oral feedback in class I have ever had. I learned a lot from this student. He has gone on to maintain a straight 4.0 CGPA throughout university and interned at a major multinational corporation that has offered him a job upon graduation. But are these what make a successful student? There are many other kinds of students I would call successful, and they don’t need to have earned a 4.0 CGPA. There had been many others who were more like Harry Potter’s Ron and Harry or even Neville Longbottom in their academic endeavours and they have taught me a great deal. Not every student exceeds expectations or achieves an “outstanding” result at the end of the semester, but every student gives a teacher an opportunity to learn and is successful in his or her own right.

I use the term “teacher” intentionally though at university, we are known as lecturers. And I deliberately wrote that I’ve learned a lot from my students because this is true. Teaching and learning don’t go in a single direction. They go both ways, and it’s a learning process for both parties if we allow it to be.

Some semesters, my students are avid bloggers and very keen to post their thoughts and feelings on the group blogs and discussion boards. Other times, the students are more timid and less outgoing even online. But whichever type of student, I have to remind myself that these are not quite young adults yet: they are still adolescents, finding their way to adulthood, with all the peaks and pitfalls of peer, parental and academic pressure that university life brings to them.

It is easy as a teacher to stereotype our students. This one is hardworking, that one is weak, another is smart but lazy, this other student is the jock who’d rather go for another round of basketball practice than attend class. We could very well wind up labelling our students as those in the 1980s hit The Breakfast Club: the jock, the princess, the nerd, the criminal and the basket-case. A 21st century analogy would be to label them as Harry, Hermione, Neville, Draco and Goyle. It certainly would be easier for us to do so: we could box the students neatly into their stereotyped categories and teach and help them as such. While that is one way to do it, the more time-consuming and perhaps more rewarding way would be to get to know each student as an individual.

Swinburne’s foundation program is a bridging program that prepares students with the necessary academic skills they need after leaving secondary school in order to succeed at their undergraduate studies in the university. But it is not just about learning the academic skills. It’s about bridging that exciting path from adolescence to adulthood. Teachers in the program have an exciting role to play. We provide the students with the knowledge and technical skills they need whether they are in the business, design, engineering, IT or multimedia stream. And we also guide them across that precarious bridge to adulthood.

Students come from all over the world. One semester might find students from Tanzania and Pakistan in the same classroom with those from Bintulu and Kampar. Group work and out-of-class activities bring these students together. They must unite to achieve a common goal and how well they do depends on overcoming differences that range from cultural and linguistic to academic and political. Each unique student contributes to the mix and it’s our role as teachers to guide them to find and develop their strengths while overcoming their weaknesses so that the final result is a positive, self-affirming one.

We would not be doing justice to our students or ourselves as teachers if we were to stereotype them and urge them only to aim for high grades and equating that to being a successful student. We can better help students to achieve an “outstanding result in life by successfully crossing that bridge from secondary school teenager to university undergraduate if we perceived them and taught them as unique individuals. In that process, we would learn from our students, too, and become better teachers in academics and life both. I would hope that studying at Swinburne is perceived by student and teacher alike as an adventure and not a chore or painful task that must be slogged through. And I hope that I can convince my students that this is so, and to do as that famous teacher, Professor Albus Dumbledore, did: inviting one his students named Harry to join him to “step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure”.

Christina Yin is Associate Head of the School of Language and Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be contacted at cyin@swinburne.edu.my