Have a cuppa

I was one of two examiners for three UROPS students this semester. The students arrange to present to us, usually as a Keynote (=powerpoint) presentation on their laptops.

I usually greet the news with mock dread since it comes when we are up to our necks reading drafts and conducting oral exams besides lectures, practical and CAs. Its a crazy time until the recess week!

However, when the (usually) 3rd year students finally present, I find I recognise all the faces from their shadows in the corridor during the past semester while they were hard at work. And they are are illuminating to listen to. After having applied themselves to a specific question, they do end up educating their examiners about the specific topic.

Its important to spot and highlight loopholes not just for the exam, but some of them will be writing papers after the semestral exams. So the session functions as an oral review as well. Its invariably easy to spot issues and rattling their cages is a time-honoured tradition that provides them a challenge to think on their feet and expound. They have to cope with alternative perspectives and new ideas and we evaluate that too. They in variably help nail their own coffins while fighting to keep the lid open! But its the engagement not the outcome which is important so they do okay and its a warm up for the tougher session during honours.

Its not unique to fumble, I’ve seen PhD students in the final exams who would have profited likewise. Had we retained the practise of afternoon tea, they would have experienced this more often and during casual conversation as they would have been exposed to their seniors and even their peers more.

We used to chat about our projects with academics from other biological disciplines witin the department in the 90’s. And they used to tell us about the good old days in Bukit Timah campus when they could exchange ideas with a wider variety of practioners; the advantage of a small campus. Well, these days we’re pretty happy even to meet our colleagues! The collegial tea rooms of the former departments of botany and zoology were all converted to offices and labs during the hustle and bustle of the life science transformation.

So I told the students to ask people out for tea, that they’d actually be delighted. In the absence of the tea room, that table outside the Ecology Lab has always been the site of a wide variety of discussions. And it still profits from the passing biologists. Its just that they aren’t strolling much anymore…

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