MIKE Choong Wai Keng is a lecturer at The Design School at Taylor’s University. When asked about how students should apply their knowledge in forming solutions to an existing problem in society or in the industry, his answer is simple: empathy.
“Empathy is the most neglected aspect when designing solutions for society or industry, ” he says.
He adds that the School embraces ‘”design thinking”, whereby students are “trained to empathise with the target market or audience to discover the real insights that are often difficult to be explained or communicated.”
However, empathy and design thinking are usually not what comes to mind with regard to tertiary education. Many lecturers and students also do not make mastering soft skills a priority.
Taylor’s decided to walk the talk when it came to embedding life skills into all of their academic programmes, while giving every student an opportunity to be a creator. The idea is to intentionally nurture the three intelligences of “intellect”, “practical wisdom” and “craft” among its graduates through Taylor’sphere.
“Students learn theory from their lecturer or textbooks, but knowledge needs to be applied in real life situations for learning to be effective, ” says Taylor’s School of Psychology lecturer Pang Chia Yee.
Pang says there are several ways these are applied in Taylor’s degree programmes, such as through group project work as well as work-based learning and internships.
“Many students are so used to structured academic life that when things become unpredictable, such as in real-life situations, they go into panic mode, ” she says.
“Society has conditioned them for many years to achieve subject scores, which are individual achievements. However, in college and university, we have group work, which they find challenging because many are weak in communication and leadership skills.”
She says that these life skills are crucial to tackle life challenges, noting the importance of other emotional quotient (EQ) aspects such as resilience and emotional management.
These are part of the Taylor’s Graduate Capabilities (TGC) that students would be assessed on in every module, she says, and Taylor’s students receive a second transcript describing their competency in these areas.
Raja Imran Raja Azhar, a lecturer for the Diploma in Design programme at Taylor’s College, says that first of all, soft skills need to be modelled by academics in order for intellectual aspects to be absorbed successfully.
“There were some rare occasions when my communication with my students did not synch, but I would find other approaches to hit that ‘jump-start’ button with them, with regard to their assignments.
“Sometimes it’s not about the lack in our academic approach, but more about their personality and traits, and I try to encourage them to be more open in discussions, ” says Raja Imran.
Having recently won the RISE Educator Award: Taylorian Edition for his pastoral care and engaging manner of teaching, Raja Imran goes out of his way to ensure his students grasp concepts well.
He says that with lockdowns and prolonged periods of online learning, he had to be flexible and creative in his approach to teaching and assessment, returning to some old school methods of using paper and recyclable items, as well as making use of students’ own body measurements and spatial awareness.
“Students realised that it’s not the expensive materials that boost their model-making appearance. What designers look for at the end of the day are design ideas and constructability, even with just the use of basic materials such as glue, papers and cutter.
“As a result, some first semester students achieved jaw-dropping output, ” he says.
And while online learning has not stopped academics from nurturing the intellect, it also did not hinder students from engaging in the craft aspect, as Choong reveals.
“Students are exposed to multidisciplinary collaborative projects as early as year one via a university-wide social innovation module which makes it compulsory for students to solve real-world problems with students from other programmes, schools or faculties.
“Students are inculcated with the ‘fail fast, learn faster’ growth mindset by embracing the practices of making, tinkering and creating, ” says Choong, who is one of two co-directors at Taylor’s Me.reka Makerspace, who directs the university’s academic integration with industry and community impact.
Instilling this “maker” mindset throughout the university has reaped benefits for students, Choong says.
“Not only is this an effective way of learning, it drives students to create products instead of only consuming them. This mindset spurs innovation by connecting the students with the right tools, inspiration, opportunity and community of makers.”
Choong believes that a suitable atmosphere that allows students to experiment, fail and grow and attain the right set of soft skills is a defining experience that prepares students to adapt to an increasingly volatile and complex world.
This is, after all, what makes university worthwhile.