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Xu Yajun: Inspiring new generations of teachers and innovative thinkers

JAN . 25 2021
Peking University, January 25, 2021: Xu Yajun, professor of PKU School of Public Health, received the 2020 Outstanding Teaching Award. This award demonstrates appreciation for a teacher’s educational accomplishments. Xu began teaching at the Department of Nutrition and Food Hygiene following the completion of her doctorate at PKU School of Public Health in 2005. Her hard work and unique story-telling teaching technique in her fifteen-year tutoring career is popular among students and earned her accolades like the ‘Best Teacher’ in the School of Public Health for four years from 2015 to 2018. Others include the first prize in ‘PKU Youth Teacher Basic Teaching Skills Competition’ in 2008 and first place in the ‘Sixth Beijing Youth Teacher Basic Teaching Skills Competition’ in 2009. More recently, she won the prize of ‘Pioneer of Online Education’by Ministry of Education in 2017 and was titled as the ‘Beijing Famous Youth Teacher’ in 2018.

Xu Yajun
Xu believes that her love to inspire new generations of students who will develop innovative ideas for China and the world led her to choose the teaching career. She undertakes several courses every year like Nutrition and Food Hygiene for undergraduate students, and Early Life Nutrition at the graduate level. She combines her unique teaching style and a research orientation with the firm resolve that students in PKU should learn something beyond the books. According to the professor, “The medical textbooks lag behind at least five years, so the knowledge in the books is not enough for students in PKU.” So, she regards research as a critical inspiration for her profession. This research orientation is crucial because it keeps teachers and students alike abreast with the latest trends and advances in science.

In addition to her teaching, Xu puts much effort into the cultivation of youth teachers. She is an instructor for youth teachers development at the Education Development Center of PKU Health Science Center, offering open classes, workshops, and demonstration classes on teaching skills every semester. Knowing the difficulties of being a new and young teacher, and having received awards for her efforts as a youth teacher, she intends to share her experiences with youths aspiring to join the profession. She holds that “When there are more young teachers showing enthusiasm about teaching, more teachers will be encouraged to better involve in teaching.”   
Online Learning Space that Builds Bonds

In 2013, Xu joined the first PKU team of MOOC (massive open online course) development and established the first MOOC course titled ‘Nutrition Around You’. Her intention to launch MOOC was to realize equity in education. Online courses provide opportunities for students all over China to take classes from PKU without any charge. Xu is proud that, after several years of development and refinement, the MOOC course has offered thousands of students in rural areas chances to obtain knowledge from China’s top universities.
This course is not only widely recognized in China but has also offered learning experiences to more than 5,000 students from over 130 countries. Xu felt a sense of fulfilment when the course quality and its global reach earned its selection by Guokr MOOC College among the ‘World Top 50 Popular MOOC Courses’ in 2015.

Furthermore, the professor recounted an event from her first MOOC lecture, where she created only Chinese audio without expectations that international students would enrol in the class. However, in the first week, some students emailed her detailing their difficulties to understand Chinese and hoped she could provide English subtitles without which they may drop the class. To meet this need, a Thai student enrolled in the course took the initiative to convert Xu’s audio into Chinese text and then translated it into English for the entire class to download. No student dropped the class afterwards, and this sense of commitment between the students through the connection of the internet moved Xu deeply. This event gave her a strong sense of pride and a special bond with the students, and it has also been one of her driving forces to improve her teaching style continuously.

Innovating Teaching Approaches

As a pioneer of developing MOOC courses in PKU, Xu endeavours to make the lessons more efficient. Based on her analysis of students’ learning experiences, she designed a teaching method that suits them the most. Xu truncated the forty-minute course into segments no longer than ten minutes, which received many positive feedbacks. She believes that the fragmentation of acquiring knowledge can be a unique advantage of online teaching.

Since 2015, Xu combines this teaching method of MOOC with the daily teaching of undergraduates on campus, using the offline campus experience as the flipped classroom. The flipped classroom intentionally shifts instruction to a learner-centred model to explore topics in greater depth and create meaningful learning opportunities. At the same time, students acquaint themselves to new topics outside of the classroom.
The professor believes that this integrated MOOC and offline teaching is useful to solve many problems teachers meet in medical courses. One of the issues is that the contents of medical subjects are extensive with limited teaching hours. To tackle this, Xu prefers to creating an online group with students where they receive preview materials to brainstorm among themselves and develop independent ideas about topics the class did not cover. “Most of my current courses are in the form of the flipped classroom or blended teaching since MOOCs are not enough for offline education, and it is hard for management. The combination is much better, and it is very suitable for teaching,” Xu commented. In this way, the face-to-face class becomes efficient, and students will have chances to think and learn something out of textbooks.

The Far-Reaching Commitment of Public Health

The outbreak of SARS (2002-2004) and the COVID-19 pandemic in China have brought to bear the essence of public health discourses. Through the course, ‘Introduction to Public Health’, designed for first-year students, Xu instructs students on the meaning of public health and what they could do to raise awareness about responsible practices to safeguard public health. “It is important to construct these concepts for students as soon as possible,” the professor added.

Xu lauded China’s collective efforts to set up the necessary emergency and disease prevention systems, thanks to which the nation has had an outstanding performance to control the spread of the virus. “More importantly, it is PKUers that have spoken for China on the international stage; it is PKUers that have formulated our national health policy and it is PKUers that developed public health guidelines,” she commented. She hopes that in the future, more students can devote themselves to the cause of public health and make significant contributions to the country.

Xu believes that she is fortunate enough to be engaged in her beloved profession, and appreciates the efforts of her colleagues and herself to mentor China’s young talents interested in health-related fields. Moreover, she perceives that her most significant contribution to the School of Public Health is her demonstration that teachers in the School are experts in tutoring just as they are in research and field works.

Reported by: Wei Qijia
Edited by: Dickson David Agbaji, Zhang Jiang