As a theoretical physicist, Ruvindha Ruvi Lecawasam’s teaching CV is impressive, a Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Tutoring and Demonstrating its latest addition. Intuition and simplicity are at the heart of his teaching philosophy, along with a conviction that he, himself, is as much a part of the learning process as his students.
“A lot of the courses I have tutored have been the ones I have had the most problems with as an undergraduate, like electromagnetism, thermodynamics – they were the two courses I remembered the least, and did the worst on,” he recalls.
“But then I came back a second time, and teaching helped me to really get it.”
With a belief that, content-wise, he only ever needs to be one lesson ahead of his students, Ruvi’s teaching is characterised by an ability to place himself into their shoes. By ‘struggling through’ the course content himself, he is able to view the challenges through a student lens. He does not proclaim to be a tutor who has all the answers, but rather, a tutor who equips students with the skills to uncover their own answers.
“Everything that you are confused about, they are probably going to be confused about as well,” he said.
“Walking them through the process is very valuable, and I think that’s what I have learned. It doesn’t really matter if I know the material by heart, it’s whether or not I can teach the students how to learn.”
Ruvi’s experiential learning approach is complemented by his conviction that everything is intuitive. He admits to spending days, weeks even, poring over concepts in an attempt to uncover the intuition behind them. When applied to his teaching, this intuition frequently appears in the form of providing students with simple imagery, enabling them to understand the deeper meanings within subjects such as abstract mathematics.
“If you have the confidence that intuition exists somewhere, and you spend the time looking for it, you kind of find it – so I just look and keep looking until I find something,” he said.
This year has been one where Ruvi has needed to draw upon all his skill and intuition. In Semester One, he was tutoring courses in thermodynamics and electromagnetism when Covid-19 arrived. In collaboration with his convenors and fellow tutors, much time was invested into brainstorming the most effective ways to promote student interaction. Despite the hard work, initial results were disheartening.
“We would be thinking of all these different ways – will we have a big meeting at first and branch off? Will we branch off, and play all these different games to try and get students talking? We created a big group Slack for all the students to talk in. At first it seemed like nothing worked,” he recalls.
Ruvi admits to feelings of disillusionment, as he questioned the time and effort spent devoting to the creation of an interactive online environment. Two months in, the fruits of labour finally began to show, as students started engaging with the plethora of communication tools available to them.
“I think what I learned from that was, you have to do all these things, and even if it’s not working, you just keep doing it, and after a month or so the students will eventually come around and adapt to the new normal.”
“I guess instead of thinking ‘Oh, this thing isn’t working, we should try something else,’ we really need to just keep slogging along and doing this thing, and eventually they will come around.”
Regardless of the medium and the challenges he encounters, Ruvi’s passion for teaching has rarely wavered, with his all-important intuition being at the heart of his motivations.
“What I really love is when you have a student who is struggling, but if you can give them enough intuition to the point where they start to figure things out by themselves, or when they start to ask questions or have realisations by themselves.”
“I think that is something I really enjoy – seeing the students have their moments like that.”
Mr Ruvindha (Ruvi) Lecamwasam is a tutor and PhD student within the Department of Quantum Science. View his profile for the VC Awards 2020.
Kristie Broadhead is the Team Leader of Promoting Excellence in the Education Communities and Environments (ECE) – one of the three teams within the ANU Centre for Learning & Teaching (CLT).