“The focus needs to be on learning rather than teaching”

Dr. Supriya Shidhaye, Principal, Vivekanand Education Society’s College of Pharmacy, tells Shraddha Kamdar about engaging students with simple methods and applications.

She promised to meet me after I was back from a long holiday, and kept it, even if it meant exchanging messages way beyond working hours! Or even if it meant taking some precious time out from her duties while the final exams go on in the classrooms. She shed a whole new light on degree college and pharmacy education. Dr. Supriya Shidhaye, Principal, Vivekanand Education Society’s College of Pharmacy, believes that today, the focus needs to be on learning rather than teaching. And that is what she and the teachers at the college have been practising for a while now, with great results.

For the purpose of learning, feels Dr. Shidhaye, it is essential for teachers to be interactive in class. Students at VES College of Pharmacy participate in quizzes where some of them serve as quiz masters, who also generate the questions. It opens up a whole new aspect of processing learning material for them, and how to test knowledge about it. “In my final year classes, the quiz masters really need to read a lot! Plus, the last round is a case study which I provide, and proves to be a apt grand finale to the quiz,” she informs.

Apart from quizzes, the college offers several other activities to the students. “Among the many initiatives is the advance journal activity that the third year students engage in. In groups of four they take up an impactful article published in a reputed journal of pharmacy, and study it in a manner that they can then present it to the others. They are continuously guided by a faculty member. The others, in turn, prepare a page-long synopsis from their understanding of the presentation, and that way, they retain the new advancements of the field. In addition, all the students understand how to approach an academic article, learn to reference material and learn to look for references as well. As many as 17 articles are presented in a single semester which amounts to an incredibly vast base of knowledge,” Dr. Shidhaye explains. It would pay to add here, that these activities are over and above what the Mumbai University syllabus prescribes for the students.

Moving from theory to practice, even during the practical classes, every teacher in the college sets aside two classes for experimentation beyond the syllabus. Students are informed in advance of these classes and have the flexibility of either coming up with the idea of the experiment on their own or approach the teacher for a broad and general idea to work on. All the experiments conducted thus in the last year have been catalogued in a small booklet. This booklet now serves as a reference copy for the incoming students.

The aim of all the different initiatives is an attempt to provide exposure beyond what is necessary. This includes constant workshops by faculty in conjunction with industry practitioners, poster competitions and debates as well. At this point I go on to ask her that all of this – what to learn, what to do, what to read, and so on – is decided for the students by someone else. Be it the syllabus or evaluation system, shouldn’t they also have some say in that policy decision? “I understand your point,” says Dr. Shidhaye, “the students’ aspirations, vision and objectives matter. These should be known to the authorities or policy makers. Otherwise, there should be a mechanism to get their opinion in and have it reviewed periodically. In this case, the alumni of any institute can be of great help, since they are the fresh products of the college and also have a taste of the industry practices to show us what works and what does not.”

It is believed that if the students’ opinions are considered in this manner, perhaps their focus and obsession with marks may reduce a lot. Unfortunately, they are so ingrained in the process (or may be the rat race) that they never unlearn it. “The university has taken some measures to control that. Now the credit system provides for grades and the range of each grade is pretty vast, so students will not be struggling for each mark, since it will not make any difference to the grade,” opines Dr, Shidhaye. She adds that there is a lot of scope to develop, citing the example of the continuous assessment needed by the university which ensures a greater level of interaction between students and teachers. She also says that these tools provided by the university can be used appropriately and optimally to create the desired effect among the students.

Moving on, I ask her about the major problems she faces with student placements, since most students are hesitant to take up jobs in lesser known organisations. “The problem in our field is of a different kind,” Dr. Shidhaye elaborates. “The popularity of a company’s name is not an issue, since most students know the kind of work they will do in each company, and are willing to take it up. The major issue, especially for Mumbai-based institutes is that students are unwilling to move to other towns and cities, and the lucrative jobs (in terms of experience as well as pay) are based outside the city.” She says that the students need to be open about getting out if their comfort zones and moving elsewhere if a job takes them there, since the pharmaceutical plants may be based in cities where it is easier with the government regulations.

Towards the end of our interesting interaction, we move towards talking about those students who may not be privileged enough to have all the resources and exposure to do as well as the others. Yet, they are proactive and want to go ahead. Is there a way, I ask. “I feel that ICTs can help tremendously towards that goal! Even if advanced facilities are not available, with just an internet connection, you can be linked to any classroom. I am sure colleges and institutes like ours would like to share our resources with such students, and even colleges which are based in other towns,” Dr. Shidhaye shares. She talks of how adopting colleges in rural or other semi-urban areas could be a social responsibility for colleges like hers. She credits the culture within the Vivekanand Education Society which emphasises heavily on value-based education, and says that it could go further in integrating such institutional linkages as well. The idea left us both with a lot of food for though for our ensuing afternoon.

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