What is the state of teaching and learning in Cambodian higher education?



By Sopheap Phan

A couple of years back, I traveled to Phnom Penh to interview close to a dozen stakeholders about Cambodian higher education for my doctoral dissertation. My interview covered several key aspects including financing, access/equity, governance, quality, research, and labor market relevance. In this post, I will present the perception of stakeholders about one of those issues: teaching and learning. I will look at the overall state of teaching and learning in HEIs today, pointing out the positive developments and the challenges that need to be dealt with?

Teaching and learning, a core component in Cambodian higher education, did not fare well. According to the participants, it continues to follow a traditional style (the teachers talk and the students listen) and the passive absorption of knowledge content. Many factors contributed to this problem. The lack of appropriate teaching and learning materials, methods, and qualified workforce along with financial and professional support remain key issues.

Despite acknowledging that, in general, classroom teaching remained teacher-centered with a focus on rote learning and content memorization, the respondents noticed a change in the teaching methodology at some Cambodian higher education institutions. Student respondents noted that:

Student 1: Now, the teachers in some subjects such as language, law, and education at big universities began a shift from those practices conducive to learning based on repetition and memorization. They introduced different modes of learning such as group work, discussions, and debates.

Student 2: teaching? In my school, in my class, the teachers promote discussions and debates. The thing I like about my teachers is that they don’t strictly follow the books. They give us the materials or book that we need to read and ask us to read at home. When we go back to class, we can discuss the things we read.

The participants applauded this practice. One student said it was beneficial to the learners because it encouraged them “to express themselves, share ideas, and become more confident” (Student 1). To this student, this was a big change, because “Khmer culture somehow does not want us to talk much, just listen . . . Khmer teachers, even in (the name of a famous university), just talked and talked without knowing or caring if the students listened or not; that’s terrible.” The student wished that the teachers and higher education institutions provided more classroom interaction in university classrooms. Student 1 talked about the limitation of discussion/debate-based classroom pedagogy:

…during the whole semester of three/four months we have only a total of 2 to 3 group/class discussions. And some classes have no discussions throughout the whole semester-none. It’s limited because they have to teach so much within so little time.

It is interesting to point out that conflicting opinions about the way teaching and learning should be carried out emerged when I brought the students’ perspectives into the conversations with university teachers.

The faculty members recognized the importance of the students taking part in classroom conversations and interacting with the subject matter, but explained why it was not easy to foster that new way of teaching and learning in Cambodian universities. One faculty member argued in favour of the interactive modes of teaching and learning and said that it helped students to gain confidence in themselves and to be competent problem-solvers as well.

However, the same faculty member pointed out that students often evaluated his teaching negatively: they commented that he did not teach, but just facilitated and listened to the students. The teacher admitted that he had been called to meet with his departmental head a few times to talk about the students’ complaints. He sensed that university administrators understood his intention to plan lessons using student-centred techniques, but they told him to follow the students’ wishes, as “the university needed to please and keep the students in the program.” Thus, he suggested that the students reinforce “the passive pedagogy”:

Faculty member: … students complained about the teachers letting them talk and share ideas in class…During the evaluation session, they said they found it hard to catch up with the lessons through class discussions…some said they got lost. So they wanted me to teach them using slices – explain everything one by one, line by line like a baby is being fed.

Another faculty member suggested that personality and character traits played a part in the continuation of passive, traditional teaching and learning pedagogy. He said the majority of Khmer students are naturally shy and are fearful of making mistakes in front of other people, so they do not like class interaction and discussions. He said, “It does not help when you are taught from a very young age that silence is golden.”

According to the study participants, the reason why conventional classroom methods prevail in Cambodian HEIs involves other aspects as well. An employer participant said that the majority of faculty members did not have appropriate and/or graduate level training. Therefore, teachers lacked preparation in pedagogical approaches. Nevertheless, he argued that qualifications were not the only problem: the lack of motivation and financial reward also impacted classroom teaching.

Employer: …most universities have teachers with only bachelor degrees – they teach student studying bachelor degrees. We know the problem, but not much has been done about that. That is a starting problem that affects teaching, but there are also…I mean motivation and money. No one is motivated to teach when your efforts are not recognized. And the money is not there…well, I mean like salary is low and other incentives are not available.

One student felt some sympathy with the observations concerning teaching and learning quality within Cambodian higher education. He explained why universities lack qualified teachers to promote effective teaching and learning this way:

Student: I think there are still many challenges if we talk about university lecturers. The first thing is their salary is low. Universities can’t attract qualified people to teach – these people do not want to teach for a little money like that. They have many opportunities like working for international organizations for a lot of money.

As a higher education officer actively involved in both teaching and policymaking, one participant pointed to the lack of regulations as a challenge for the ineffective teaching and learning in Cambodian universities:

HE officer: Generally, the majority of the teachers lack pedagogical skills. For example, those who teach law and economics-they graduated from law school and business school, but they have not trained to be teachers. This is an obstacle. And as you know, teaching needs methodology, needs training. We don’t yet have requirements for all teachers to possess all these things before beginning teaching. We don’t require all teachers to have teacher certification like in other countries where you can only teach after getting the certification. In our country, we only need a degree a level above the students to teach. This is a problem. Also, teachers teach too many hours and lack research due to lack of incentives.

When asked to suggest ways to improve teaching performance/effectiveness, a student spoke of his good experience at high school and wished that university teachers followed the example of his high school teachers:

Student: I picked up one very good teaching method from my high school. The teachers there had really good interaction with the students. It was like we were friends, and they always helped every time the students needed help. With caring teachers like that, students became happier and more enthusiastic in class.

The student participants wanted people in general and university students in particular to make some changes to improve teaching and learning effectiveness:

Student: ….I think people and students should start giving out ideas and they should never be satisfied with what the teachers told them. In our culture, we tend to believe whatever the teachers say. That is terrible. Sometimes I found my teachers’ mistakes, but I could not do anything because they are my teachers. And most of the teachers are not open-minded either. Interviewee 2, student: I think both the teachers and the curriculum should aim to encourage students to share ideas. I mean you get them to speak up, to not be shy. In our culture, people are afraid of making mistakes. I think we should somehow change this mindset.

A faculty member was enthusiastic about the new development regarding teaching at her university, especially in her department. She said it was promising that the department was taking steps to encourage teachers to work together in developing and sharing teaching materials and other teaching and learning resources. She suggested that higher education institutions pay attention to staff development to ensure they have sufficient qualifications for effective teaching performance:

Faculty member: I think each department should try to build capacity. I strongly believe capacity building is still weak. For example, some teachers who do not have a master’s degree are allowed to teach. This affects the quality of education. Some students mind this and don’t want to study from teachers who don’t have a master’s degree.

Another respondent, however, advocated a government initiative in making sure that university teachers have both qualifications and competency in teaching and learning. He said, “The teachers in the system must know their subject areas and should know how to teach those subjects.” He suggested that government should develop a clear policy framework that encourages higher education institutions to conduct proper staff recruitment and provide ongoing training while simultaneously providing the institutions with technical and financial support for capacity and professional development activities.

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