My Story: Dr Helen Law
Dr Helen Law, Assistant Professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), was recently in Australia on a three-week Teaching and Learning fact-finding mission. While Helen was in Perth visiting Curtin, we took the opportunity to speak with her about her role at PolyU and the strategies in place within the university aimed at supporting students.
NCSEHE: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? When did you first discover your interests in health sciences and teaching?
Helen: I grew up and received my education in Hong Kong. I was interested in studying medicine, but I did not have good enough grades. In order to explore which health sciences career would be suitable for me, I worked as a volunteer at the Our Lady of Maryknoll Hospital, in which I had a chance to visit different departments. In the end, I chose Diagnostic Imaging at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and worked as a Radiographer at the Prince of Wales Hospital for two years before I could afford to study abroad. When I was in high school, I never considered becoming a teacher. I believed I would not have the patience to handle the classroom discipline. One day, when I was working on the flower beds in the Biology Laboratory, the school principal came to me and asked me to substitute for a teacher in the primary section. That was my first experience of being a teacher. The experience did not put me off but gave me the idea that if I have to teach, I would like to teach at a tertiary level! My first tertiary teaching experience was from the Department of Physiology at the University of Melbourne, where I worked as a Senior Tutor while I was writing up my PhD thesis.
NCSEHE: You hold a master degree in Information Technology in Education. What inspired you to study IT? Based on your learning and experience, do you have any tips or advice for Australian teachers you would like to share?
Helen: Yes, I did my MSc(ITE) when I was working as a Research Officer at the University of Hong Kong. My research position did not involve any teaching, but I was still interested to learn about effective pedagogies. Foreseeing that IT would be a media for teaching, I chose ITE. I did not have any background in education nor computing so I benefited a lot from the course. At that time, NCSEHE Director Professor Sue Trinidad was one of my teachers and her emphasis for us to be “change agents” in education inspired me. Believe it or not, I now use in my classes the tutorial skills that she used on us!
As I am still “learning to teach and teaching to learn,” I do not have any special tips or advice. I can only encourage Australian teachers to keep an open mind and keep trying new ways of teaching.
NCSEHE: You currently hold the position of Assistant Professor, Department of Health Technology and Informatics within the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences at PolyU, and teach first year health science students. What are the common characteristics of your first year cohort? What are some of the most common challenges these students face?
Helen: Together with colleagues from different disciplines of health sciences, I am teaching Human Anatomy to about 750 first-year health science students. I am also the Year Tutor for first-year Radiography students. My first-year cohort is quite homogenous. Ninety per cent of them are school leavers, aged between 17-19, and about 99 per cent are local Chinese. Due to the competition to enter our programmes, these students are all very intelligent high achievers. According to our annual university survey, the majority of students are the first in their family to receive tertiary education. Forty per cent of our students are also from low-income families who live in quite poor environments. Hence, our students are under significant pressure to attain a professional degree in order to get a good job and financially support their families. The most common challenge these students face is the balancing act between their studies, their social activities and part-time jobs.
NCSEHE: As Assistant Professor you have the autonomy to choose what to teach in your subjects and you have told us previously that your curriculum has changed a lot as students have had trouble learning the content. How have your curriculum and pedagogy changed as a result of the feedback you’ve received from students? What has been most challenging for you?
Helen: It is difficult to teach Anatomy because everything is very factual. There is nothing to “understand” but a lot of terms to remember. I have tried to use different ways to help my students memorising the names and relationships between different organs. In addition, we are changing the curriculum to align Anatomy with Physiology so students may find it easier to correlate the structures with functions. In terms of Foundation Pathology, I have removed the Histology content and instead focussed on Pathophysiology, which is more relevant to the Radiography students.
Our students enjoy case-based peer teaching, but they are too dependent on the Internet to look up information. They fail to realise that being able to find an answer does not mean they have learned. As a result, they cannot think on their own feet when a new case is presented to them in an examination. I am still exploring ways to solve this problem. I do not mind trying new things in class, but it takes time to plan and test them out. The most challenging thing is to include interesting activities and cover the required materials within the limited time available for each class.
NCSEHE: Does PolyU provide any formal student support or pastoral care services?
Helen: Yes, the Student Affairs Office (SAO) provides all kinds of support to PolyU students. I always remind my students to seek help from the SAO counsellors if they encounter any problem. Usually, our students are easily disturbed by love affairs, time management and financial difficulties. However, they hold the misconception that only extremely serious problems should be revealed to the counsellors.
Within the Radiography programme, each new student is assigned to a teaching staff member who becomes their Academic Advisor (AA). The students may approach their AA for help or discuss matters with group-mates at regular meetings. We also have Subject Leaders, who will look after students’ academic performance and are on alert for instances of students skipping classes, which is an early sign that a student may need support. At that stage, Year Tutors and Programme Leaders may also become involved. Indeed, we are all wearing a number of different “hats” every day!
NCSEHE: You were recently here in Australia for three weeks, visiting universities in both Melbourne and Perth. Did you enjoy your visit? How does Australia compare to Hong Kong? What were you hoping to learn or achieve and take back to PolyU?
Helen: I did my PhD at the University of Melbourne a few years ago and spent 4.5 years in Australia at that time. I had been back to Australia on several occasions since then, but this last visit was my first time making the trip specifically for Teaching and Learning purposes. It was indeed an eye-opening experience for me! Starting with the arrangements made by Professor Marilyn Baird at Monash University, I had the opportunity to learn many new strategies for teaching Anatomy. There were 3D printers, plasticine, body paints and digital dissecting tables used in various creative ways. Then of course, at Curtin University, Professor Sue Trinidad showed me the innovative teaching spaces on campus and introduced me to the Equity Operations Group. Dr Jan Mckay, Discipline Leader of Medical Imaging Science, made arrangements for me to meet with her teaching staff to exchange ideas. Dr Georgina Fyfe and Dr Lisa Tee also shared with me their teaching philosophy.
I will be sharing the information I acquired with my colleagues in Hong Kong and will definitely try some of the Australian ideas in my teaching.