29 July, 2016
The Liberal Art University in Hong Kong
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Associate Professor Elizabeth Ho at the Department of English is one of the recipients of the Teaching Excellence Awards 2015/16, the biennial competition at Lingnan that recognises teachers who have demonstrated outstanding performance. With teaching experience in the US, she advocates open communication between faculty and students.

Hearing everyone’s voice in the classroom

When Prof Elizabeth Ho returned to her native Hong Kong to take on a teaching position at Lingnan’s Department of English, she wanted to challenge the myth of the typical Hong Kong student.

“I had heard they were supposed to be passive,” she says, “shoved full of information through rote learning.”

Her first seminar, however, didn’t do much to disprove that myth. When she tried to stimulate the kind of free-flowing discussion engaged in by students at Texas A&M University and Ursinus College in the US, where she had taught before coming back to Hong Kong, she encountered a lot of resistance.

The problem, as she later discovered, was not due to their inability but in many cases to anxiety about being unprepared and having to speak English in front of a group of people. To address these issues, she provided her students with the tools needed to prepare for classroom discussion ahead of time as well as a safe space where they could take risks and test out assumptions.

“I wanted to create a democratic classroom where everyone’s voice can be heard, recognised and acknowledged and where differences are respected,” says Prof Ho. “I also hoped this would lay a foundation for civic engagement outside the classroom.”

Despite her students’ initial resistance, Prof Ho’s approach has performed wonders. “By the time my students are in their third or fourth year, they are completely different people,” she says. “They have more confidence and the ability to ask the right questions. They can think on their feet, without necessarily having the right answers.”

Building bridges between students and teachers

Promoting engagement among students is just one of the reasons why Prof Ho won the Teaching Excellence Award. Another was the Student Consultant Programme, which she instigated and continues to coordinate today. Prof Ho says, “I was prompted to do this because I wasn’t getting feedback on my teaching. I missed having that.”

Well established in the US, the Student Consultant Programme now in place at Lingnan offers the opportunity to form partnerships between students and faculty members. The student consultants are trained to observe, critique and help professors reflect on and develop their teaching.

“This is an opportunity for a faculty member to gain the unique perspective of the student on a weekly basis throughout the term,” she says. “The student consultants will attend classes and take detailed observation notes, see whether students are engaged, and then provide feedback afterwards.”

First tried in the Department of English, the programme has now been extended across the university, pairing students and professors from different disciplines, such as English majors with Economics professors, or social science majors with a physical sciences specialist. Using this interdisciplinary approach, the student/professor teams focus not on the content but on the way it is delivered.

The programme has been so successful that Lingnan is now looking at ways to expand the partnership and open channels of communication to a larger group of people beyond Lingnan.

“I think the programme has a lot of implications for Hong Kong in general,” Prof Ho says. “Partnership and discussion between students and adults, between students and the administration, and between students and government is more important than conflict and confrontation.”