Active learning

In my class I often ask students to close their laptops and turn off their smartphones during lectures and class discussions. I let students know that everything that I show in class is available online where they can download them before class. There is no need to take notes but it is important for them to pay attention and participate in discussion. I tell them that they cannot listen to lecture and at the same time receive and send text messages to their girlfriends or boyfriends on their smartphone. Of course students often argue that they can listen to lectures and use their laptops or smartphones simultaneously. Since it is difficult to convince them as some students believe that they can do both so last week, I gave the class something to do to prove my view.

In my “Technologies and Future Markets” course, I allow half of the class on my right side to receive and send text message to their friends or use laptops to check or send email during the lecture but the left side must turn off their phones and laptops. After the lecture, I gave the class a 20 questions quiz based on that day lecture. The result was all students who sit on the left side scored much higher on the quiz. Students on the right side, who often text messages or check email can only answer about less than half of the questions. Now the whole class understands that they cannot do many things at the same time. The more they use laptops or smartphones, the less they learn anything. After this simple demonstration, nobody complains about turn off their devices rule in my class.

In college, the study rule is “For every one hour in class, students should spend at least two to three hours outside of class studying and doing homeworks.” For most students it means 28 to 32 hours of studying per week. But how many hours students really spend on studying per week? I often ask my students: “Let us be honest with each other, do you really spend that much hours to study?” The obvious answer is “No.” The fact is most students only spend about 10 hours or 15 hours or about half of what they need to study. To encourage students to focus more on studying, I often ask questions when I see them in the hall or in school yard: “What are you learning today?” or “What have you been learning in mathematics this week?” I do not ask them about my course but ask them whether they have focused on learning something. I occasionally jokingly say: “Do not tell me that you have not studying anything.” Of course, some students are not comfortable with that kind of questions but eventually, they know that I care and concern for them so many change their attitude. They begin to tell me about their difficulties, their problems and their concerns and by knowing them, I can provide useful advices. After each test or after class discussion, I often ask: “What did you learn from the test today that you will remember for a long time?” or “What did you learn about the class discussion today? Is there anything that you still feel unclear? By asking questions, you know what students think, what they learn, and what they do not understand.

Before each test, I often have a review session but instead of go over the course materials, I ask students to do the review. I ask them to work in groups to answer the question: “What will be on the test?” I let them guess the questions then discuss the answer with each other. After that, I call each group to tell the class about what they think the possible question would be and what the answer should be. By generating “possible questions and answers” by students in class, most students will learn more because they have to review all materials to guess the questions as well as the answers. This “active learning” method forces students to learn. Instead of passively waiting for teacher to review course materials, they must pay attention and focus on their own learning.

When I used this active learning method in China, some professors asked: “It is cheating? Why give students all the questions and answers? I told them: “As teachers, we know what questions to ask and what the answers are so why review them before the test? It is the students who need to study, to practice and to develop their skills. Our job is to “facilitate the learning”, not to give them the answers so they can memorize. Students have to discuss with others to find the correct answers themselves and this is where learning happen. An answer given by teachers is not helpful since students will memorize it. An answer that students come up with after they analyze and discuss with each other is actually “true learning” and that is what “active learning” is.”

Each day, about ten minutes before the end of class, I ask students to review course materials that they just learn with another person and identify three important points then I randomly select one student to summarize that for the whole class. By doing this, I want to make sure that students pay attention to my lecture and course materials and they must express what they have learned to the whole class. This will also improve their presentation skills as nobody know who I would call to do the summary. Of course, to encourage them, I would give extra bonus points to students if they can summarize essential content from the class. Most students tell me that they really like this technique as they learn more in each class.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
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