How to Effectively Engage Students when Teaching Interdisciplinary Modules

In recent years, the National University of Singapore has been emphasising the importance of interdisciplinary learning as it helps to equip students with various competencies that will enable them to solve problems outside their area of specialisation, thereby preparing them well for the workforce and giving them the flexibility to engage in life-long learning. It is for this reason that the University made it a graduation requirement for students to read a few common interdisciplinary modules.

However, I have noticed that students have been apprehensive towards such interdisciplinary modules that teach content outside their major. I spoke to my students about this issue and I found that many of them do not understand the purpose of such modules. They rely on the testimony of their seniors, who may emphasise the importance of specialisation in one’s major over a breadth of outlook and skills.

As a consequence, many students do not see the point of interdisciplinary learning, and they enrol into these common modules with little interest. This is a major problem I have been facing since I began teaching interdisciplinary modules from 2017.

In 2019, I became the Module Coordinator for GET1050 “Computational Reasoning,” where I teach coding and data analytics to 700 students in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences each semester. At the start of each semester, about 70% of my students do not fully engage with the course materials due to the poor perception they have of interdisciplinary modules. To tackle the problem, I have to invest a significant amount of effort to win them over to see the purpose and value of the module. By the 7th week, I estimate that I have won over and engaged most of my students, with the number of non-engaged students dropping to about 30%. This is still a problem because the content of each week builds on the previous weeks. By the time students see value in the course, they may be unable to catch up on their own.

I have since learnt that teaching interdisciplinary modules require a great deal of effort on the part of the instructors to engage students, spark an interest in them and to help them to see both the beauty and the value of what they are learning. If you can win students over and give them a positive perspective about the course, they will be happy and willing to do all kinds of things for their learning, and students will be more engaged in the assignments and tutorial activities.

Here are a couple of things that are essential to generate student interest in interdisciplinary modules:

(1) A personable instructor who can connect with students. This is essential especially for large modules on the blended-learning format, which is the norm for many common interdisciplinary modules offered here in NUS. The online learning experience can be cold and impersonal.

So, the instructor must try to connect with the students online in a very personal and warm way, through the various modes of communication. This humanises the online learning experience and makes the process a lot more pleasant to consume.

I have learnt is that it is important for the instructor to project a strong image of care (and of course, to act on it). Students are more receptive when they see that they have a lecturer who cares for their well-being and their learning. Simple things like making an attempt to remember students will go a long way.

I will also make visible all the effort I am doing to help them learn well – improving the videos or assignments, or grading their work. Firstly, this humanises me, which is very important in improving the experience of online learning. Secondly, when students see the effort their educators put, they will want to reciprocate the effort. This is evidenced by remarks that I often hear from my students such as, “I simply wanted to barely pass this module, but seeing you work so hard so that I can learn well, I feel that I must work just as hard not to let you down.”

(2) The purpose and value of interdisciplinary learning should not be communicated in a formal manner. Communicating the importance in an informal way generates the greatest impact because the message becomes very intimate and personal. One thing I do is to record a fortnightly chit-chat session which I insert as the first lecture video in the fortnightly series.

In these videos, I dress less formally to signal that it’s something different from our regular programme. I begin the video announcing the date and time just to let them know that it is not a video recycled from a previous semester. I will use the video as my way of checking in on them; talk about things in my life; and use it to address the more pertinent questions and concerns that students have raised.

This provides a platform to talk about the real-world applications of interdisciplinary learning or the applications of what I teach in my course. I share with them stories about my peers who have long graduated: how one of them could not fulfil his dream of being a journalist because he didn’t know Microsoft Excel when asked at an interview; or how half of my peers (7-8 years after graduation) are now required to learn coding at their work (even though they are working in non-technical roles). This makes a huge impact on the students, and it motivates them to take their learning more seriously.

I also use the fortnightly chit-chat video to praise and assure them that they are doing fine. It is more personal for them to see my face and hear my voice saying it, than to write it as an announcement. It makes them feel more confident in what they’re doing.

(3) Negative comments from seniors can severely affect the receptivity and openness to learning in the next semesters’ cohort of students. And similarly, if seniors have positive things to say about an interdisciplinary module, their juniors will be more open and receptive to learning. It is therefore important to ensure students get a good experience from the module since these students will very quickly become seniors themselves, and they will influence their juniors.

The efforts I invested in for the first two semesters (such as the strategies mentioned in (1) and (2) above, and the effort to ensure students enjoy the experience) started paying off in the third run of my course. My module had developed such a strong positive reputation within the student culture that juniors are so happy to learn in my module because they are surrounded by seniors who are just as happy to support them in their learning.

To aid in my attempts at shaping students’ receptivity towards my module, I have found it very useful to have a website showcasing the value of the module and students’ feedback about it. I also curated testimonies/feedback about how students secured their internships, or how they found their learning so applicable to their internship/work. This is important because students will search online about the course once they know they have been pre-allocated the module. If we are able to make a strong positive first impression on them, they will be more open and receptive to learning when the semester begins.

The efforts I discuss above proved very successful, and I was able to achieve significantly higher initial take-up rates, with about 60% of the cohort fully receptive and engaged in all the learning activities at the start of the semester. Overall, that cohort was a lot more receptive, and almost every student came to class well-prepared. And by the 7th week, about 80% were fully receptive in their learning.

Overall, students were won over by the expressions of care and concern for their learning, and the personal stories of how their seniors have to engage in work that demands an interdisciplinary mindset or approach. These help to generate interest in students to be fully engaged with the course.

This article is part of a series of articles on pedagogical methods and education.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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