Lighting up the bulb

Dr Nicholas Thomas
Associate Professor, Department of Asian and International Studies;
Teaching Excellence Award Winner 2017

Dr Nicholas Thomas receives the Teaching Excellence Award presented by Prof Way Kuo, President of CityU.

Dr Nicholas THOMAS, recipient of the Teaching Excellence Award (TEA) 2017, gets his greatest satisfaction from helping students towards that “light bulb” moment where they suddenly understand a complex concept.

A dedication to both teaching and research has been the driving force in the career of Thomas, an associate professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies. In each area, he believes student engagement is the key. At its most fulfilling, this creates mutual benefit, with fully engaged students more likely to spark something extra in the teacher.

“I try to make learning fun,” he says. “But a good teacher also needs certain mechanisms to help students learn effectively and engage with all the materials.”

For Thomas, who joined CityU in 2009, these methods include debates, reading circles, role-playing exercises, and the use of a wide selection of reference sources. Students are also expected to apply critical thinking skills, which are viewed as a key facet of the university’s “Discovery-enriched Curriculum”.

“This gets them to ask questions and to recognise that theories used in social sciences are imperfect,” he says. “In the real world, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. So, we need to get students to look behind the stories. That’s where learning is happening.”

I try to make learning fun…But a good teacher also needs certain mechanisms to help students learn effectively and engage with all the materials. - Dr Nicholas Thomas

In the classroom, Thomas aims to cultivate a supportive and enabling environment. He also actively encourages students to see him after class if they have particular queries or difficulties. “If four or five of them do not get the concept, it can limit the scope of the overall class discussion. Spending a little extra time to help students understand something new allows them to be more engaged in the next class.”

Overall, humility and an open mind characterise his approach to the job, and his teaching philosophy is guided by a belief in learning from research and allowing that to inform learning in the classroom.

“This gives students exposure to the latest research thinking,” he says. “I just give the facts, rather than my opinions, and encourage students to develop their own insights and conclusions. When you do that, you help them to form new perspectives on a subject and to come up with questions or angles you may not have considered before. It is a ‘virtuous circle’ that benefits everyone.”

When organising reductive reading circles, Thomas chooses articles and sets the parameters for discussions. A class of 20 might be divided into four groups, each receiving three to four topics for consideration. In class, the first group has to identify and explain four key points in detail. The second group then has to find three different - yet still important - points from the same source material.

“The final group only has to give me one key point, but it can’t be the same as those mentioned by the other groups,” Thomas says. “That means everyone has to engage with these additional materials, decide for themselves what is important, and take things forward rationally. As a lecturer, I have to step back, but if they get stumped, I will still ask pertinent questions to broaden the discussion or point them in the right direction.”

Thomas has introduced role-playing exercises for graduate students, where they represent different countries at the United Nations. In the first half of the semester, each group has to develop a policy paper based on the positions of their assigned country and present it. Subsequently, the whole class is challenged with a brand-new problem.

“The purpose is to teach them about the value of ongoing research and to bridge the gap between the real and academic worlds,” Thomas says. “Students have to put themselves in the position of a country they may not know about or whose policies they don’t agree with, so they usually need to do some intensive research.”

He plans to incorporate this exercise in a course for undergraduates, since it also enhances negotiation and interpersonal skills which are vital in the workplace.

A lot of Thomas’s courses are about what is happening now, such as global security issues and regional political developments. Therefore, he uses information from numerous sources including newspaper features, think-tank reports and articles from academic journals.

“I start each undergraduate class by discussing what has happened in the past week. We want to go behind the story and explore why something has happened. I also use some films and develop worksheets for them to answer and understand how things interconnect in the real world.”

He adds that a modern university needs faculty members who are both good teachers and good researchers. He generally advises PhD students to attend more conferences on a range of subject-related and more general pedagogical topics. He also hopes to see them receive more disciplinespecific training on how to teach effectively.

“I have allocated part of my TEA prize money for PhD students to go on weeklong teaching and learning courses abroad, so they can apply that knowledge within our discipline,” he says.