Something had to change, that much was obvious to MMU lecturer Dr Sharmini Gopinathan who felt that students in Malaysia were suffering under the current method of teaching that's been conducted.
She believed teaching methods had to change for the newer generation who are more tech savvy, always connected and device-gadget dependent.
Instead of banning phones from lectures Dr Sharmini let students embrace them and they have become a vital link to helping students learn.
“When you put on a PowerPoint presentation and you just go in there and lecture, lecture, lecture, trust me if you have a class of 30 students only two will be paying any attention,” she lamented.
“The other 28 are fiddling with their phones, their laptops, texting and checking their Facebook etc. I then saw the later consequences of that, which was these 28 students becoming stressed around exam time because they needed to catch up on what they had missed. They were going absolutely haywire trying to fast-read the books, but not been able to understand what was taught, all heading towards an average or below average performance.”
Dr Sharmini knew she had to make students more engaged, create more interest in educating and to make learning more fun.
“My thoughts were that whatever we are teaching them should be of more use to them: something which they can apply in their daily lives. There was absolutely no point teaching them something that they wouldn’t see as necessary in application, like learning something just to regurgitate it later for exam purposes. When they inculcate it they will be able to solve problems and apply solutions. Even in exam questions they will be able to critically think and see how they can solve a problem with whatever they are doing.”
Dr Sharmini came up with some innovative, out of the box teaching strategies that use common childhood games which engage and keep students, from all levels including primary, secondary, university and adult learners, interested in learning.
Games like Snap, Old Maid, Memory card learning, snakes and ladders were used as teaching methods to engage students more intimately.
And an App, on a phone, was integral to ensure getting the students attention.
“My first attempt was to incorporate blended learning, which was what the government was championing at the time, using on-going online-quizzes, instead of mid-term exams, through their phones. I would give short quizzes at the start of a class to recapture the previous lessons’ learnings, things like that. So before the class ends I will tell them that the next class will be a certain topic, so do some reading up on it and when they enter the class again for the first 5-10 minutes I will give them 10 quiz questions.”
The students loved it. Their phone gave them continually updated competition tables of the current quiz leader which became a goal for all to compete for top place on the weekly quiz.
Lessons were sometimes conducted outside in parks, mamak shops and places that take away the four wall aspect of learning, scavenger hunts became a great way for students to plan their way to interacting with strangers as well as engage each other in competitions.
“Once I gave them 20 stalks of spaghetti, a marshmallow and some sticky tape. The task was to build the tallest freestanding tower and they were given time to discuss how to go about building from nothing. After they completed that activity I got them to debrief - what were their strengths, what were their weaknesses, what could you have done better?”
“A large majority of degree holders come out of University with their degree not knowing how to apply the knowledge they have learnt, they come out in the real field and don’t know what to do,” she said.
The methods must be working as the acid test for any lecturer is measuring student attendance at 8am lectures, a time which usually sees an empty room at 8am with students sauntering in late, unmotivated.
“I started getting Whatsapp messages from the guard at 7.45am telling me there were students lining up in the hallway anxious to enter.
The Dr’s methodology is being tested in MMU among undergraduates and Master of Business Administration (MBA) students and she has also implemented the strategies for testing and feedback at Sekolah Kebangsaan Methodist ACS in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan.
The strategies help to change their regular method of educating, to make boring topics and theory dominant subjects more interesting, to inculcate the message deeply into the students as well as to create a fun learning environment amongst the students. It also fosters self-learning ability within the students which leads to hands-on learning, continuous participation as well focused attention.
Last year Dr Sharmini made her university very proud by winning the international award on Educational Development, receiving an Order of Merit at the 7th Annual Korea Inventor Award Festival 2018 - she is the only Malaysian that has received an award in this category.
“Teachers are no longer just information providers, I realised that and decided not just provide them with information, but to make them apply the theory or technologies learned into real life.
“We are all very digitally connected and are members of our own WhatsApp group, Facebook and traditional email.
I feel the current generation of students look for love, affection and are concerned. You have to become very personal with all of them, you have to sympathise with them, empathise with them, know their pinpoints and triggers and be aware of their problems and shortcomings.”
“I will throw them questions for discussion and they will discuss via their phones in their small groups and they have to come up with applications and solutions. Sometimes their answers are mind-blowing, offering things you would never have thought would come up in discussion. Sometimes the students will have brilliant ideas and I learn from them.”
“When students trust you, they will listen to your ideas, when you give them suggestions and ideas they will respond, they will listen to you and will like your class - eventually my students will start performing very well without me continually nagging them to study.”