When Rajith Vidanaarachchi AFHEA relocated from his Sri Lankan classroom into an Australian one, he was struck by the diversity of his student cohort. An upbringing in Sri Lanka had acquainted him with heterogeneity in the wider population, less so the university system, meaning that the classroom dynamics in Australia took some getting used to.
“With my experiences at ANU in particular, students come from different backgrounds, so I found my teaching strategies had to target each of my students in the audience. You have to really pay attention to the diversity in the class,” he said of his role as a tutor within the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.
Chief among the diversity was a wide span of ages and life stages among his students. Classes comprising excitable teenagers fresh out of high school, mixed in with mature aged students who were enrolled to achieve a targeted learning outcome, prompted him to re-evaluate his teaching strategies. The net result was a more flexible teacher, one with an acute awareness of, and sensitivity towards, the different life stages among his students.
“You have to be quite aware that these students do have much more going on in their lives outside the classroom” he said.
“Once, I had a student who was running his own business, and he had to be on call during class time. I understood that he was taking this course to further his knowledge, and if I, as a tutor, did not allow him to take a call, that would completely undermine his reason for attending class.”
“We have to understand that a student’s life consists of much more than a weekly class of one to two hours.”
While catering to the range of life stages within his classroom took some adjusting to, a high degree of engagement among Australian students, relative to what he had previously experienced, is something that Rajith took to with rapid ease,
“The students are a little bit shy over there [in Sri Lanka], but in Australia they are more active. It’s so much easier to tutor when you know that the students are engaging with you.”
“In Australian classrooms, the students ask more questions, which I really like.”
As Rajith creeps closer to the submission of a thesis in data mining and matching, his passion for teaching burns as brightly as ever. It is a journey that started while he was still at high school, and decided to start teaching programming to younger children as an after school activity, ‘because it was something he knew a bit about.’ The joy of sharing something he was knowledgeable about provided the spark in these early years, and continues to sustain him to this day.
“The most satisfying thing as a tutor is when students have an ‘aha’ moment, and they understand something they didn’t before – particularly if I am describing something tricky” he said.
“I get students to come to my tutorials without having attended a lecture, and sometimes they are under a lot of pressure and are quite confused. When you explain something to them, and see them then understand it, that is very rewarding.”
Rajith Vidanaarachchi is a tutor and PhD candidate within the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science
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)