Prof Elizabeth Ho from the Department of English "westernised" classes by encouraging students to speak out
Prof Ho Hung-lam, Elizabeth
Associate Professor, Department of English
I wanted to create a democratic classroom where everyone’s voice can be heard, recognised and acknowledged, and where differences are respected.Prof Elizabeth Ho
Compared with students in the West or even in mainland China, those in Hong Kong are relatively quiet, often showing a reluctance to express opinions and share their views in the classroom. But for Prof Elizabeth Ho, associate professor in the Department of English, there was no reason to regard that as a norm or something that couldn’t be changed. Furthermore, she felt, no matter what their nationalities are, students should not be stereotyped or judged according to preconceptions.
Creating democratic classroom
"I had heard Hong Kong students were passive, crammed full of information through rote learning," says Prof Ho, recalling comments around the time of her return to the city to take up a teaching position at Lingnan. Therefore, one of her initial aims was to stimulate the kind of free-flowing discussion engaged in by students at Texas A&M University and Ursinus College in the United States, where she had taught previously. It was hard going at first, though. In her first seminar, the students barely uttered a word: they were too shy to express themselves.
As Prof Ho later discovered, the problem was not a basic lack of English-language skills. In many cases, it sprang from anxiety about having to speak English in front of the class on an unfamiliar subject and without preparation. To tackle this anxiety, she provided the information needed to prepare in advance for interactive discussions and cultivated the sense that the classroom was a safe space where students 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," Prof Ho says. "I also hoped this would lay a foundation for civic engagement outside the classroom."
Despite some early initial resistance, the approach has worked wonders. By the time students are in their third or fourth year, they are completely different people. "They have more confidence and the ability to ask the right questions," she says. "They can think on their feet, without necessarily having the right answers."
Linked to this, Prof Ho was a winner at the Teaching Excellence Awards 2015/16, the biennial Lingnan event which recognises outstanding teaching performance.
Pioneering Student Consultant Programme
Promoting engagement among students was just one of the reasons for her win. Another was the Student Consultant Programme, which she instigated and continues to coordinate. "I was prompted to do this because I wasn’t getting feedback on my teaching. I missed having that," she says.
Borrowing the concept from the US, the programme at Lingnan offers students the chance to form partnerships with faculty members. In particular, the student consultants are trained to observe, critique, and help professors reflect on and develop their teaching.
"This is also an opportunity for faculty members to gain perspectives from the student on a weekly basis throughout the term," Prof Ho says. "The consultants attend classes, take detailed notes, see whether other students are engaged, and provide feedback afterwards."
The programme was first tried in the Department of English and has now spread around the University, pairing students and professors from different disciplines. Using this interdisciplinary approach, the focus is less on course content and more on how it is delivered.
The success of the programme means Lingnan is now looking to expand the concept to organisations outside the campus. "I think there are a lot of implications for Hong Kong as a whole," Prof Ho says. "Partnership and discussion between students and those in business, administration and government is more important than conflict and confrontation."