Communications key to teaching excellence

by Maggie Tang

Academia at its best – HKUST best 10 lecturers series

Leung Pak-wo
associate professor
Department of Physics
Photo: Johnson Poon

An associate professor in the department of physics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), Leung Pak-wo recently received two teaching awards. The first, the Michael Gale Award is an official honour conferred by the university based on student evaluations and peer review. The second was for being one of the best 10 lecturers of the year, as voted by HKUST undergraduate students. Despite the accolades, Dr Leung remains modest. "While I am very honoured and take it as a compliment, receiving such awards has never been my objective nor even something that I have thought about. I teach to enlighten my students so that they can determine the correct approach to solve problems," he says.

For Dr Leung, winning the awards is not an end in itself. Instead, it encourages him to work harder and aspire to greater achievements, and to continue helping students discover their potential. In particular, he has a passion for helping his students succeed and he believes that a communicative relationship is a prerequisite for this. "We must be adaptable and cater to students' needs," he explains. "If your students cannot relate to you, communication breaks down and the learning process is doomed. However, we ought to maintain our principles at all times. There is a comfortable middle ground where the teacher-student relationship is most effective."

Dr Leung achieves this by getting to know his students individually so that he can better respond to their needs. He also uses a non-didactic style of teaching which encourages interaction in the class. "I believe that it is not my position to instruct but to help students discover their competencies to find solutions to problems. In the course of this they must also learn to approach the unknown with objectivity," he adds.

"It is true that traditionally Hong Kong is an entrepot and our success is built on our business skills," Dr Leung says. "We have never been a major physics research centre nor do we have industries that are strongly related to the applications of physics knowledge. There are not many relevant job openings in the market and I can safely say that many of my students take up careers in other fields. Nevertheless, I am sure that the majority of them are satisfied with their decision to study physics."

Long-term perspective

Physics may seem abstract and some people are unable to see its benefits, but university education is not vocational training, Dr Leung stresses. "We equip students with a diverse knowledge set that enhances their intellectual capital and broadens their minds. A good university education should empower students to use their broad-based capabilities in effective and efficient problem solving situations in the outside world. As a science subject, physics provides students with optimal methods to decode and overcome challenges. Physics graduates will find the facts, concepts and skills that they learned at university useful for the rest of their lives."

Taken from Career Times 04 April 2008
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