Thursday, April 28, 2011

Enhancing Student Participation in Learning at the Collegiate Level

[The following keynote address with this rather prosaic title was delivered by me on 16 March 2011 at the PES Engineering College auditorium, Mandya, Karnataka state, at the inaugural session of the two-day UGC sponsored state level seminar on “Innovative Approaches to increase Pupil’s Participation in higher Classes” organized by the Janatha Education Trust, Mandya.  In view of the perennial relevance and importance of the theme, I am reproducing the address in its entirety here.  I hope it doesn’t sound too sermonizing or self-centered.]

I am glad to be here today to talk to a large gathering of college teachers from Karnataka on a theme that is of primary concern to all educators.  I understand that this gathering represents both colleges of teacher education and other types of colleges in the state. When the organizers asked me to give this keynote address, they told me that this two day seminar was meant to discuss innovative approaches to increase student participation in higher classes. Inherent in this exercise is the realization that participative learning at the collegiate level is far from satisfactory and needs a strong infusion of novel ideas and approaches to enhance the effectiveness of learning through productive student participation in classroom activities. I hope some of you will be contributing to this seminar by sharing not only your ideas but also, more importantly, how you have been able to successfully implement them.

Today I wish to share with you my own thoughts and experiences on tackling the broader issue of promoting enhanced student participation in learning at the tertiary level of education in the country, both inside and outside the narrow confines of the classroom.  I would like to draw upon my experiences both within and outside the country.  My credentials include forty years of experience in collegiate teaching at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels in a prestigious institution in the country. 

First, let me narrate a few of my memorable experiences in 1967 when I was among a group of newly recruited teachers from the regional colleges of education in the country deputed for a special programme of studies in the renowned Ohio State University, USA.  One of the undergraduate courses I was enrolled in was on Electrical Circuits.  On the very first day, the professor offering the course told us that his classes would be devoted only to discussing the chapter-end questions and problems contained in a textbook on the subject which he wanted all of us to buy.  There was no question of his ‘teaching’ the subject through the traditional lecture method which was in vogue in most other courses.  He wanted us to study thoroughly two or three chapters in advance of each of his classes, work on the randomly assigned questions and problems from these chapters and come prepared to the class for an in-depth discussion.  So the onus of learning the subject was on the students through a self-study approach, but such learning would be strongly reinforced by the follow up classroom discussions which would focus mostly on the hard spots of the subject.  The spotlight was on the students randomly picked to lead the discussions, with the professor operating like the conductor in an orchestra.  This was indeed a novel and highly productive way of teaching and learning through the participative approach, without any of the spoon feeding inherent in traditional classrooms.  The students had to take each and every class seriously.  The final course grading was based on a combination of a terminal examination in which all the questions were drawn randomly from the exercises in the textbook and the professor’s own assessment of the student’s classroom contribution.  Most of the students ended up with an A grade for which they had been made to work very hard by a relentless but caring task master.

My second experience relates to another course I had taken, this one on the Principles of Nuclear Reactor Physics, given by Prof M L Pool.  I remember his name very clearly because the late Dr H Narasimhaiah, the famous educationist and humanist of Karnataka with whom I was acquainted intimately, had obtained his doctoral degree in Nuclear Physics much earlier under the same professor and the two of them had a tremendous regard for each other.  Prof Pool was drawing liberally from Samuel Glasstone’s classic Sourcebook on Atomic Energy and used to employ a lively and impishly humorous inquiry approach to teaching the operational principles of nuclear reactors. There was never a dull moment in his classroom.  My recollection of him is not so much because of this aspect of his personality as for the novel way he conducted his terminal course examination.  But before I describe it, let me remind everyone here that evaluation of student learning is an inseparable aspect of the teaching-learning process itself, and is often looked upon as a necessary evil.

On the evening of the examination, Prof Pool handed out to each of us a sheet of paper containing a dozen open-ended questions most of which appeared terribly difficult and only indirectly related to the topics he had taught.  In our terminology in India, the students might say they were grossly ‘out of syllabus’ and raise a hue and cry against the examiner.  Incidentally, in the American education system there are no external examinations and the question papers are set, administered and evaluated solely by the instructor who would have taught the course.   Prof Pool told us that the questions were indeed difficult to answer, he didn’t really expect any of us to answer all the questions without some help and so he was allowing us to refer to any book or reference work on the subject.  He allowed us to go to the departmental library and dig up the answers from any available sources and return our answer sheets the next day morning along with all the incidental notes and calculations we had made!  He extracted a promise from us that we would not consult with each other or with any outsider.  He assured us that even if we couldn’t provide satisfactory answers, he would give due consideration to whatever spadework we could do to discover the answers if we were on the right track.  In effect, he was conducting an open book examination outside the confines of the classroom and outside the syllabus as well, giving us about twelve hours of time to tackle the questions and problems he had set.

We all spent the best part of that frustrating night in the library, did the best we could do under the circumstances and returned the answer sheets the next morning without daring to look him in his face.   We spent a nerve-racking two days before his next class in which he revealed that at least half of his questions were actually research problems he had in mind for his doctoral students and was merely looking for some spadework from us.  He admitted that he did indeed get some useful leads from the attempted answers of some of us, appreciated our generally positive attitude to his experimentation and announced that he had rated most of us, including me, in the A grade.  You can imagine our huge sigh of relief.   This was the man under whom Dr Narasimhaiah had the good fortune to work and earn his richly deserved doctorate degree.

In another course I was enrolled in, the instructor was keen on promoting some independent study and prĂ©cis writing habits.  He wanted each student to study a journal article relating to a specific theme and write a summary of it on one side of a post card and submit it as a fortnightly assignment. At the end of the course he gave due weightage to such assignments for the overall grading.  He openly complimented me on the quality and precision of my writing and wondered how I could do this despite being a foreigner.  I had to tell him that English was not really a foreign language to Indians in those days.  This experience provided a strong impetus for me to further enhance my communication skills.  At that time I did not realize the true value of this small fortnightly exercise; now I do.

In yet another course, on School Science Education, each student had to design, fabricate and demonstrate a fully working model for teaching a chosen topic in a simulated class of fellow students at the end of the course.  Necessary workshop facilities were available in the department, but the students had to procure the required materials on their own.  This was a productive learning activity in every sense of the term, with the students having to put in a considerable amount of effort as well as time.  I remember to have fabricated a teaching aid showing the properties of electrical circuits in series and parallel combinations using a dozen incandescent light bulbs. 
After returning to my college in Mysore, I naturally tried to implement some of the good teaching-learning practices I had observed in the USA, both at the Ohio State University and elsewhere.  I was fully cognizant of the strongly discouraging climate in the country for trying out innovative academic practices; but this was both a challenge and an opportunity.  First I had to create a climate of trust, faith, enthusiasm and open mindedness among my students.  Despite the students’ widely differing academic, geographic and linguistic backgrounds, I found it relatively easy to do this after I overcame their fear of formal examinations and gained their confidence.  One reason for the aura of fame surrounding the regional colleges of education is the academic freedom enjoyed by their staff despite university affiliations.  I utilized this fully and started exposing students to a variety of unusual experiences both inside and outside the classroom. I would leave out the easier chapters of the textbook for self-study, thereby gaining more time for discussing the hard spots, placing emphasis on the problem solving approach.   I used to conduct appropriate demonstration experiments inside the classroom, securing student involvement as much as possible.  In my laboratory classes I tried to ensure that the students had a good grasp of the basic concepts behind any activity they attempted and strongly discouraged any cook-book recipes.  I tried to relate the subject content to students’ everyday experiences and focus strongly on the evolutionary history of the key concepts underlying the discipline.   Occasionally, I also resorted to open book tests and adopted a flexible approach to evaluation.  I enjoyed doing all these and apparently so did most of my students. 

Outside the classroom, I tried to engage students in some extra-curricular activities through a Photography Club as well as an Astronomy Club using the resources of the college. My latest blog post [see:] gives the reader an idea of the kind of activities I tried to promote in Observational Astronomy which is still one of my passions.  The Photography Club enabled students to learn the basics of photography, including developing and printing their own photos in a dark room.  There were numerous other ways in which I was reasonably successful in promoting participative learning as an integral part of the education process.
In recent years we have witnessed a phenomenal growth of higher educational institutions in the country, particularly colleges of teacher education.  This has brought in its wake numerous problems which are seriously affecting the quality of education imparted in these institutions.  The National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) was set up by the UGC specifically to address quality issues in higher education in the country.  In the assessment process NAAC adopts seven criteria to judge the overall quality of any university affiliated institution.  Under each of these criteria, NAAC has identified a number of key aspects as quality indicators, including any ‘best practices’ that may be found in the institution.   The key aspects include academic flexibility, student profile, catering to diverse learner needs, teaching-learning process, teacher quality, evaluation process and related reforms, inter-institutional collaborations, physical facilities in the campus, maintenance of infrastructure,  library as a learning resource, ICT as learning resources, student progression, student support systems, student activities, institutional vision and leadership, organizational arrangements, human resource management, financial management and resource mobilization, internal quality assurance system, inclusive practices and stakeholder relationships.  These aspects relate to the learner directly or indirectly and hence receive particular consideration.  To conform to most of these aspects under the different criteria satisfactorily, the plans, programmes and activities of the institution need to be strongly learner-centric.  Effective learner participation in the activities of the institution, both within and outside the classroom, becomes a prime requirement to deserve the quality tag.   It is not sufficient if the institutions merely create the required infrastructure and carry on with their traditional ways of imparting education where the teacher just lectures and the students just listen and take notes in the classroom.  The teacher’s role has to transform dramatically from that of a ‘sage on the stage’ to that of a ‘guide on the side’, actively helping the student to learn by organizing and providing the essential learning experiences as implicit in a constructivist approach to learning.  Sooner or later every institution will feel the need for the quality tag.   To earn this, it will have to implement a number of reform measures many of which need to be directed at ensuring meaningful and productive student participation.

Now, let me address the central issue of how institutions can work towards achieving a significantly enhanced student participation in the learning activities, both inside and outside the formal classroom.  In doing so I may be violating my own precepts and behaving like a sage on the stage.  If so I crave your forgiveness, taking umbrage under my long experience in the teaching profession.  My ideas and suggestions assume the prevalence of an institutional climate of openness, democracy, liberalism, flexibility, adaptability and willingness to experiment as well as a high level of functional autonomy and independence from interference by other agencies.  I also assume the prevalence of a continuous and comprehensive system of internal evaluation, with the terminal examination taking a back seat. In the present scenario these may appear too unrealistic, grossly farfetched and highly impracticable to most of you and if so I certainly sympathize with you.  Nevertheless, one can view these as idealistic long term goals and strive towards achieving them as much as possible.  It is always easy to be pessimistic but it doesn’t solve any problems, it only adds to them.

First and foremost, teachers should give up the delusion that the chalk-and-talk method of teaching, in which they treat themselves as the givers of knowledge and the students as mere receivers, serves any meaningful purpose.  The onus of learning must be placed on the learner, with the teacher acting as guide (on the side), facilitator, adviser, promoter, enabler, catalyst, etc.  If anyone thinks that this lightens the task of the teacher, he is sadly mistaken.  While the roles and responsibilities change drastically, they also become that much harder and more challenging.  The teacher can employ modern Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools and techniques to promote both interactive learning and evaluation, with every student carrying a networked tablet PC just the way he now carries a mobile phone.  This may sound too futuristic, but the required technology already exists and is not too expensive either.  I recently heard about an experiment being conducted at the SNDT University in Mumbai as part of which teachers are banned from lecturing in their classes.  Instead, they are being trained to employ a variety of alternative and more productive methods, liberally based on the use of the tools and techniques of ICT whose potential has only now begun to be exploited in the educational sphere. I wish them success in this endeavor and hope the idea will percolate into the system on a large scale.

The teacher dominated classroom can be converted into a meeting place for students to learn from teachers and from each other in an interactive tutorial style, with questions being raised by both parties and answered by whosoever can provide the answer, not necessarily by the teacher.  Of course, this assumes that the students would have done their homework, carried out their assignments and come fully prepared for such classroom discussion.  This is the setting which lets the teacher play the role of the guide on the side instead of being the domineering sage on the stage.  As a by-product, students learn some much needed communication skills.

The laboratories should become centers for open-ended project oriented activities, avoiding verificatory type of time bound ‘experiments’.  While I was in the USA I was enrolled in a Physics Laboratory course where each student could pick just four investigatory type of projects in a semester from a large list and work on them with liberal time limits and a wide range of laboratory resources.  At the end of the course, a detailed report was expected in respect of each project for evaluation and grading.  Unanticipated at that time, this experience served as the training ground for me during my doctoral work in an area of experimental physics years later at the Raman Research Institute in Bangalore.

Seminars, colloquia, symposia, debates, role playing, etc., provide an excellent means for involving groups of students in a wide range of productive curricular as well as extra-curricular activities.  Under the guidance of the teachers, students can be encouraged to not only participate but also organize such activities, thus creating valuable leadership opportunities.   In almost all curricular areas it is possible to identify topics that lend themselves excellently to such treatment.  For example, let us consider a very broad theme like Environmental Pollution.  Small groups of students can be formed and each group asked to make an in-depth study of a particular aspect of the problem.  These studies can be both interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary, affording opportunities to students studying any subject in any stream.  A student of the social sciences can contribute as meaningfully as one from basic sciences such as chemistry or biology.  A student seminar can be organized in which these groups present their findings in a well organized and systematic manner using multimedia aids and stir up a debate on how to confront and combat the great menace our society is facing today. 

Another example I can think of is yet another very broad theme like the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with matter.  Different groups of Physics students can take up in-depth studies of the properties of different segments of the electromagnetic spectrum, ranging from gamma rays at one end to radio waves at the other end, and how each type of radiation interacts with matter in different phases – solid, liquid, gas and plasma.  In doing so, they need not go into the details which emerge only through a rigorous mathematical treatment of the problem, which falls in the domain of a postgraduate course in the subject.  The findings from these groups can be presented in a symposium attended by all students and synthesized to formulate an overall picture of how radiation interacts with matter.   The teacher can play a key role in helping the students to arrive at the synthesized picture.  Activities of this type take the students well beyond the narrow confines of the syllabus, give them a chance to do a bit of research on their own using library and web resources, broaden their horizons and expand their minds.  They also strongly promote good communication skills, both written and oral. In other words, they serve the true purpose of education in a variety of ways.

I do not wish to give the impression that these are really innovative approaches to increase student participation as the organizers are envisaging.  I would like to see such approaches evolving from the deliberations in the present seminar from practicing and participating teachers.  However, these are hardly practiced in ordinary institutions and observed very infrequently in good ones.  Their rarity may perhaps justify the tags of innovativeness and novelty.

Inter-institutional initiatives open up another productive sphere of student involvement.  A number of institutions located within easy reach of each other can be interlinked, even networked, through programmes of a common nature which can be jointly organized and managed.   It is now possible to attempt such activities involving institutions that may be spread out far and wide, through video conferencing which is no longer a novelty.

Extra-curricular activities of an academic nature can be promoted through associations and clubs within an institution or group of institutions.  Hobbies like photography, astronomy, bird and wild life watching, music, philately, calligraphy, painting, dramatics, other arts and crafts, etc., can all be promoted and nurtured this way.  They provide great scope for the display of students’ individual talents, creative potential and leadership abilities.

The so called cultural activities are not in short supply in most institutions and may not require special promotional efforts.  However, not much can be said about their innovative character.  They tend to be highly stereotyped and often a sheepish imitation of Bollywood, bordering on the lewd and vulgar.  It is a sad reflection on our contemporary culture that we look up to our populist movies to provide us the stimulus.  Nobody seems to be interested in classical music and dance forms of any variety.  There appears to be a huge cultural vacuum around us, not merely in educational institutions.  Today’s generation appears to be immune to the rich classical cultural traditions of the country and of the rest of the civilized world. Tagore is as much of a stranger as Shakespeare; Satyajit Ray is a non-entity.   Here is much that can be done in our educational institutions at all levels.

Finally, let me dwell on the sports and games front.  The situation in most of our educational institutions is pathetic to say the least and mirrors the fact that India is among the most backward countries in the world in international sports and games, notwithstanding its isolated achievements in cricket and a few other sports like tennis, badminton and shooting.  I do not include chess here since it is a non-physical game.
If we examine the lives of human beings we see a good correlation between mental intelligence and physical health.  In other words, good physical activity for the body is a prerequisite for a healthy mind.  By promoting sports and games in the formative years of a student’s life we also promote good mental development.  At least for this reason, if not for developing international level competitive skills, we need to promote sports and games in our educational institutions in a really big way.  There is tremendous scope for doing this in innovative ways without investing too heavily on additional institutional facilities.  At the very least, institutions should provide outdoor facilities for games like volleyball, basketball and football as well as an indoor games hall with a badminton court and a ping pong table.  More importantly, their regular use should be ensured.  Needless to say, intra as well as inter institutional competitions can be organized to provide ample opportunities for student participation.
In conclusion, I would like to say that, based on my own experience and perceptions, I have indicated a number of ways in which the primary objective of this seminar can be achieved.  The participants may like to reflect upon them while coming up with their own ideas and action plans, based on their perceptions of ground realities which may be significantly different from mine.


A V G Rao said...

Such practices will succeed only if (a)academic freedom is given to teachers (b)'non-performing techers' do not play politics (c)administration support & encourage it.
I had such an environment as a school teacher. In the college to some extent.

Surya.S.P. said...

Sir i completely agree with ur argument and ideas on education system.We r adopting and implementing various foreign policies but miserably failed in bringing a change in education system.But we imitate them(so called developed countries)in other aspects except education.I have seen many of my friends merely studying for the sake marks and least bothered about understanding the subject.I strongly believe that application of what we learn is very important.When we don't understand we cant learn and if we can't learn we can't apply them.Since it is a semester scheme teachers r in a hurry to complete the portions.Sometime they run out of time though time is relative term.I feel that we r becoming literates not educated people.I don't understand whom to blame for this?But blaming doesn't solve the problem but will add on to it.I think not only teachers but even students have to work hard and show interest in breaking the jinx.