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Speak up, NUS

Samuel Garcia, NUS Exchange, Fall 2014

“Now, I’m not sure how to pronounce this mathematician’s name,” said the Professor, “I think it’s French. Does anyone know how to pronounce it?”

I raise my hand to answer the question, “It’s De Moivre, Professor,” I said, with decent pronunciation despite my American accent, “I’ve studied French before.”

“Oh, well, thank you,” replied the Professor, with a confused look on his face. A few other students gave me strange looks. I didn’t know why, all I had done was answer the teacher’s question. But I suddenly felt uncomfortable.

This happened during one of my first math lectures at the National University of Singapore. After that, I hesitated before answering any question asked by a professor during lecture. I soon realized that the students at this school are distinctly silent whenever a question is asked. The professor will ask a question, look up at class, and no one will reply. He will repeat the question a few times, but still no answer. It’s as if the students are too scared of being wrong.

I remember once a professor asked if a solution method had been covered in the prerequisite to the course. Since, as an exchange student, I haven’t taken the prerequisite, I wasn’t able to reply. Surely most of the local students had taken the course, but still no one raised a hand to help the professor.

The students here tend not to speak up unless directly addressed. Despite the highly competitive environment, everyone competes behind closed doors without direct confrontation. Half the class doesn’t even show up to the lecture on a regular basis.

During my time here I have gotten used to the silent classroom environment, but I don’t learn as well. The lecture theatre becomes a one-way system of communication even when the class is relatively small, and anyone who asks a question to try to gain a better understanding is made to feel uncomfortable. The students work incredibly hard outside the classroom, and I admire their ability to self-study and learn the material independently. But coming from a US institution where questions are encouraged and professors are very approachable; it took time to adjust to this environment.

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