My teaching approach part 3

There are three factors that determine students’ success: Knowledge, Attitudes, and Motivation. In the past articles, I have addressed Attitude and Motivation, in this article, I will discuss the knowledge factor that can help students to learn and develop the appropriate skills to be successful in their career.

All students come to class with certain prior knowledge. This knowledge will influence how well they learn in the course. If the students have a good foundation, they will learn more as knowledge is accumulated. If they do not have a good basic knowledge, they may have difficulty to learn the new materials. In every class, students make connections between the knowledge from what they know previously and what they are learning now. When both pieces of knowledge are meaningfully connected and well organized, students can apply them effectively. But when there is a gap, they cannot form a connection, students become confused and eventually get lost.

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As teachers, we need to identify this issue and take appropriate action to make sure that all students have a similar level to learn in our classes. I often have an assessment at the beginning of each class that I teach to make sure that all students have the same basics to do well. If some students do not have an appropriate foundation, I recommend that they take a short remedial course to improve their learning.

Learning and performance are best fostered when students practice their skills that they set in their career plan. If they know which skills they need for their career, they will put in the efforts and focus on the appropriate level of mastery. Of course, to develop the appropriate skills, students must have the knowledge and know how to apply them. In my class, I often have weekly quizzes and homework that require students to apply what they have learned that week to ensure that they can develop their skills accordingly. I believe that it is important to focus on the application to solve problems instead of just memorize the theories to write papers or pass tests. I always require students to learn these theories on their own by reading the material BEFORE coming to class and come to class ready to discuss their understanding. Based on the class discussion, I can assess how well they know the theories by asking questions or explain what they do not understand.

I believe college students must have strong reading skills because it is essential for them to do well. In most U.S. schools, active learning method is used, students are required to read materials BEFORE going to class so they can participate in class activities that promote a deeper learning. The problem is some students do not complete these readings or not even read them but always have “excuses” on WHY they did not read the materials. Instead of being angry with them, I often use humor to get them to read. These are some scenarios that often happen in my classes, especially for the first-year students.

Student: “Professor, it is too much. It is more than 10 pages, is it possible for you to summarize it to 1 or 2 pages?

My answer: “When going to work, would you tell your boss: “You pay me too much, Is it possible for you to cut my salary 60% or 50%?

Student: “Professor, Too much reading takes away the time I need to spend with my girlfriend.”

My answer: “Are you asking me to find another girlfriend for you that does not require spending more time?

Student: “I am sorry, the reason I only read only half of it because I think I can still pass the exam.”

My answer: “Since you only read half of the materials, I just give you half of the grade on your exam.”

Most college students are still maturing and they need certain social and emotional support. While the teachers cannot control their maturity process, we can shape the social and emotional aspects of the classroom in certain ways. In fact, if students feel comfortable in the classroom, they will learn more. If the students believe the teachers care about them they will behave appropriately. A negative environment or a threaten climate may impede the students’ learning and performance. The teachers should not act as the authority who punish or threaten them but someone who care and support them to study.

To become self-directed learners, students must learn to monitor and adjust their learning by assessing their own works, evaluating their own strengths and weaknesses, planning their studying habit and reflecting on the degree to which their approach is working or not. Most First-year or Second-year students often do not know how to reflect on their own progress but let the teachers tell them about their progress or based on their grades in homework or quizzes. However, with encouraging and supporting, by the time they go to the third year, most students learn to develop their own way of managing their learning, they gain certain habits that not only improve their performance but also become effective self-learners.

Al students need is the teachers who can address their knowledge, attitude, and motivation and help them to succeed in their education journey.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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