Me: "Let's talk about parents. What questions do the parents usually ask you when they come to the school?"
Teacher: "They want to know everything about their kids at school. After exams or the results being released, we ask parents to sign their children's papers so that they are informed about the results. Do you inform parents of their children's exam scores?"
Me: "That is a good question. We actually do not do that at RMIT."
Teacher: "If you do not force your students to report their academic performances to their parents, how can they graduate from your university?"
This is a dialogue between a Learning Skills Unit staff member from RMIT University Vietnam and the head of the English department at one of the most prestigious senior high schools in Ho Chi Minh City. It tells me at least two things: firstly, the school has serious concern over students' performance on exams; secondly, parents play an influential role in their children's learning at home and school. As a group of learning advisors who talk with hundreds of students each semester about their learning difficulties in completing assignments, doing group presentations, and taking lectures and tutorial classes, we are always willing to go further and explore what the fundamental problems behind all these sufferings are.
Gradually, we started to notice their parents' roles in our conversation with the students regarding their choice of subjects, careers, learning strategies, and allocation of time for studying. Then we felt interested in finding out 1) what are the parents' expectations of their kids at RMIT Vietnam? and 2) what are the parents' expectations of foreign lecturers?
These questions highlight two broad areas: what is the purpose of having higher education, and what are parents' roles in helping their children achieve these purposes?
Fortunately, parents' orientation day at the beginning of each semester at RMIT Vietnam provides us with an opportunity to get the answers to these questions by talking to them directly. I am always impressed by how passionate these parents are in the orientation and how committed they are to helping their kids achieve their dreams (I mean the parents' dreams). As for the reasons why parents send their children to a foreign university, they claim that:
* They heard about the success stories of RMIT Vietnam graduates from their friends, colleagues, or neighbors.
* They heard about the very high salaries obtained by RMIT Vietnam graduates.
* They believe that Australian universities can teach something new or different to their kids. They want their kids to get something different from what they themselves got from their university in Vietnam.
However, it seems odd for us that very few of the parents can clearly tell what exactly these differences are. Instead, these parents are surprisingly consistent when they answer our questions "How will or how did you support or monitor your children's studies at university?" And "What do you expect the lecturers to do for your children?" The parents assert that:
* They want the lecturers to inform them about their children's academic performance after examinations.
* They want the lecturers to help their children improve their English, especially when they find out that their child is unable to take notes during lectures.
* They want the lecturers to inform them about the timetable for lectures/workshops/seminars so that they can schedule their children's time properly.
* They want to make decisions for their children about selection of subjects, modules, and workshops.
There is an obvious mismatch between parents' expectations and what skills we actually help our students develop at university. What we expect our students to be aware of and achieve at the university level include:
* Investing more attention into the process of learning rather the final outcome.
* Being aware of the diversity of methods to overcome challenges, rather than learning/memorizing a standard answer. Especially in the case of assignments or essays, there is no correct answer or one explanation or one correct conclusion. Moreover, the conclusion seems less important than the logic and evidence the students provide.
* Developing independent learning skills by setting up goals, analysing problems, making decisions, managing their own time, finding resources, making efforts with minimal supervision, evaluating the progress, and identifying the gaps.
* Learning from their own mistakes or unsuccessful experiences at RMIT Vietnam, rather than trying to avoid making any mistakes. We believe sometimes that mistakes or unsuccessful experiences have nothing to do with their efforts or attitudes, but rather they may be caused by their unawareness of different learning strategies and ways of thinking.
We understand that there is no one right way to help our students and we are certainly not suggesting that we are the experts in this area, but there is some advice for parents based on our observations and communications with students at the university:
* Allow your student to make decisions after communicating or discussing with them.
* Teach your student how to make a decision, rather than focusing on the final results or answers.
* Encourage your children to reflect on their experiences and learn from their own or others' mistakes.
* Encourage your children to learn from discussion, observation, and communication with their classmates, rather than simply take down endless notes from Powerpoint slides and not engage in discussions about them.
By Wei Wei
The writer is with the Learning Skills Unit, RMIT International University Vietnam