Since I began teaching in 2017, I found that there are other challenges to interdisciplinary learning unique to this generation of students. The challenges to interdisciplinary learning are more psychological in nature. In my discussions with students, I found that many have high levels of anxiety when it comes to learning something outside their intended major.
They may be nervous about potentially failing a module. Having to do a module outside what they are competent/familiar with increases the likelihood of having to experience failure. Many students in University managed to go through their prior years of schooling without encountering failure. And because of this, the idea of potentially failing for the first time induces a great deal of stress and anxiety.
Here, I wish to highlight that this problem is not unique to Singaporean students. I have encountered many international students enrolled into my module voicing the exact same anxieties towards interdisciplinary learning.
Because of these anxieties, students imagine that there are many others who are better than them, and the moment they face a struggle, they are quick to imagine that they are the only one struggling with it, which further perpetuates the stress.
The issue is compounded when the module is taught in the blended-learning format, where students learn some parts of the module in isolation at home. They cannot see their classmates or how they are doing, and the stress drives them to imagine the worst. This affects their motivation to learn as they do not see any chance in scoring well for the module.
It also affects students’ willingness to ask for help. I also encountered many students who feel that they need to get everything in order (compile all their questions so that they can ask everything in a single setting, or be able to articulate their questions to show that they did preparation work) before they come for consultations. Otherwise, they feel they may waste the instructor’s time. However, I have come to realise that because the student is dealing with a subject so alien to them, they sometimes struggle to articulate their question. And in such situations, students do not ever reach a situation where they feel ready enough to approach the instructor for consultations.
Overall, these anxieties and self-imposed stress that many students face becomes an inhibition to learning effectively. In my teaching experience, I found that these issues must be addressed if we want to assure and motivate students to learn well.
And in my years of teaching, the Telegram messaging app has become a very integral support system in my teaching, and it helps to alleviate students’ anxieties and empower them in their learning.
Each semester, I create a Telegram Helpline where students can seek help directly from me or one of the Teaching Assistants (TAs) in the teaching team. It allows me to interact closely with students and to show them that I am serious in wanting to help them learn well. I answer questions without judgement, and I collect new questions to add to a library of Q&A that everyone can access for their benefit.
Telegram is a powerful platform because students can seek help, even anonymously (platforms like WhatsApp don’t allow this). It helps with student motivation because students can see their peers working when they ask their questions on the Helpline. Students see that there’s movement and it motivates them to work as they know they can benefit from the stream of Q&A that comes in.
More importantly, students can see their peers asking questions and their struggles are made visible online. Other students see this and it makes them aware that they are not struggling alone. It helps students feel more confident about their learning and about themselves. More importantly, it greatly reduces their anxieties over learning something so new and daunting, knowing that they can come to me for help, even if they struggle to articulate the problem.
What I like about the Helpline is that it allows me to shape and foster a positive learning culture for students. It allows me to demonstrate good learning qualities/values and shift their mindset away from one of competitiveness to collaboration. As I foster trust in them and create a safe environment for them to seek help, more students begin to participate actively in helping to answer queries by their peers. I know I have succeeded with cultivating the positive learning culture when students regularly respond to one another’s questions and help each other online.
Knowing that help is just a text message away, or that there is a comprehensive Q&A knowledge base they can refer to verify their understanding empowers students greatly, because they recognise that it is possible to master something new entirely on their own (with some assistance, of course), and they would not have to face the situation of discovering that they are not good enough. This helps to greatly alleviate the self-imposed stress felt by such students.
In general, using the Telegram Helpline as a teaching tool helps to reduce the stress that students are facing when learning something outside their specialisation because they know they are not struggling alone and that there is help readily available in the event that they require it. Furthermore, the collaborative culture that it fosters also mitigates stress because students do not feel like they are competing with each other for grades. As such, the Telegram Helpline helps empower students to internalise their interdisciplinary learning.
This article is part of a series of articles on pedagogical methods and education.