A new way to teach

A teacher wrote to me: “It is easy for you to write about Active learning because you are teaching in the U.S. Do you think the students from other countries will learn the course materials by themselves? Do you think students will read materials before the class? Have you ever taught Active learning outside the U.S.? Please comment.”

Answer: I think most students will like the Active learning when they understand the benefits of this method. It may take time for them to change, but they will follow our instructions because as teachers, we set the rules and if they do not follow, they will not pass the course.

Based on my teaching experience, I think that given clear objectives and expectations, most students can learn the basic materials BEFORE coming to class. It is was a waste of class time to stand in front of the class and read several pages from a textbook where students can read them on their own. For many years of teaching both in the U.S. and in many countries in Europe and Asia, I always use this method, and most students told me that when they get used to this way of learning, they never want to go back to the old way of passively listening to a long lecture.

To help students learn the materials BEFORE coming to class, I assign several short readings containing information that students will need for class discussion. In the assignment, I put in few questions for them to answers. For example, “What is a Binary Tree?” or What is a Boolean type?” I also ask them to think of three questions to ask during class. My class begins with a short quiz, consist of three or four questions, one of them is already posted in the reading assignment. If they read the materials, they should be able to answer them. The quiz is short and designed to make sure that students understand the reading materials. After the quiz, I give a short lecture, about fifteen minutes, on the course topic and important concepts that students should know; then I start the discussion by raising questions to get students to answer.

In the beginning, of course, students like to sit quietly and listen to a lecture because that is easy for them. But they need to “Learn how to study” by themselves, and they will NOT learn unless we require them to do so. It is hard to change a habit, but if we do NOT do it NOW, when do we think they will change? As teachers, we often forget that students not only need to learn the course material, they must also learn to make decisions about what they need to know and how they will acquire that knowledge.

Some teachers are coming to class with the assumptions that students are NOT capable, NOT knowing anything. And they will wait for the teachers to pour “knowledge” into their head. Do teachers know that even when they lecture, some students are reading text messages? When teachers passionately explain an equation, many students are only thinking about movies stars, girlfriends or boyfriends?

How do we change the way students learn and give them a different learning experience? We set new rules, new expectations and enforce it. When the first time I told students to read before coming to class, only a few did. But at the beginning of the class, I gave a quiz with questions from the reading materials. I pretend not to notice that most of the students were embarrassed. Those who read turn in their quiz within five minutes but those who did not read, could not finish the quiz. And the quiz was part of their grade for that class. If students fail five quizzes, they will not pass the course. The next class, all students came prepared and readied for the quiz.

I believe by setting clear rules and expectation that students must learn the material on their own, we are changing their bad study habit and developing a new attitude that students can learn by themselves and become life-long learners.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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