Teaching STEM with Active Learning method

Today, science and technology have become more important than ever. Every country is facing the challenges of a technology-driven economy where competition is fierce. Therefore, it is essential that all students must receive a good education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to meet the demand of a technology job market and contribute to their economy.

Teaching is about helping students learning the knowledge and developing skills so they can apply them in their lives. The traditional teaching method focuses mostly on the transfers the knowledge via memorization of facts but does not help students to develop the skills. Since it uses exams as the way to assess students’ learning, passing the exams has become the goal rather than the having the skills.

To effectively teaching STEM where students can apply their knowledge, we need a new teaching method. The Active learning method requires students to involve in the “learning process” where they must learn by their own effort. The learning environment must change from “Passive learning” where the main activity is “teacher lectures, and students listen” to “Active learning” where the students learn by discovering, analyzing, synthesizing, and applying. Active learning method emphasizes the importance of pre-class work and homework to ensure that class time is effective, allowing the teacher and students to explore deeper levels of learning through class discussions and analyze the materials together.

In Active Learning, teachers allow students to learn a concept on at least three occasions. By requiring students to learn the materials BEFORE the class. By encouraging students to learn DURING discussion in class. And by having homework, AFTER class to make sure students learn the materials well. The teachers should summarize the materials at the end of each learning period, usually a few days after, to allow students time to “digest” the materials.

By having assigned reading materials BEFORE class, students build a preliminary foundation knowledge. By participate in the discussion DURING class, students discover different views or things that they did not know before the class. They must analyze and synthesize them, and develop critical thinking skills. By doing homework AFTER class, students learn to apply what they have learned to develop problem-solving skills. Because students are actively learning throughout the learning period, they develop a good learning habit and the time spent in class with other students and the teacher becomes more valuable as they are developing deeper levels of critical thinking and analysis.

To encourage students to read the materials before the class, teachers should clearly explain what students must do so there is no misunderstanding about it. For example, when I assign a reading article for students to read, if I tell them to come to class and ready to discuss, students may not know what I expect of them. But if I give them specific information about what materials they must know; how much detail they need to analyze so they can discuss them in class, so they know what to focus their learning. I always encourage them to express their opinion on the article; even it may be different from the author’s view to developing their critical thinking skills. I tell them: “If you read the materials and agree with what it stated, you will not develop critical thinking skills. You need to challenge the author’s view by analyzing all the facts until you exhaust all possibilities. Only then, you have a deeper understanding of the materials.” To make sure students learn the materials well, I often ask questions to several of them during the class discussion to make sure that they follow my instruction and use their answers as the topic for class discussion.

Sometimes, I have them watch a video or a short film instead of reading before class. The same process also applies as students must analyze and develop certain opinions about it. Instead of saying “watch the video,” I always identify what is important, and why they must pay attention to certain parts. To make sure students develop the critical thinking skills, I often divide the class into several groups; each group will be focusing on different points of view and let them debate on the topic related to what they need to learn. For example, the reading materials presenting two different sides of outsourcing, good or bad; or Is artificial intelligence good or bad. This lively discussion sometimes takes more than one class time, but most students would enjoy it because they have a chance to express their views.

I believe Active learning is one of the best methods of teaching STEM. It helps students to learn and be accountable for their own effort actively. Of course, preparing for Active learning method require teachers to receive the training, spend more time and efforts than the traditional lecturing, but it will challenges students to take learning into deeper levels and develop essential skills that they will need when they are going to work.

Teaching Active learning is not easy, especially in an environment when students are used to passively just sit and listen. It requires more time and a lot of patience. To start, teachers need to explain the new teaching method, what they want students to do and why this method is better for them. Students need to understand the important and the value of the new method before they will accept it. The fact is I have been teaching this method in several countries, especially in Asia, for many years but until recently some students and teachers begin to realize the value of it. Last year, a student admitted: “It took me several months to understand the important of this method. There were times I wish you would go away and we can go back to the old way of listening to lectures. But now I get it, appreciate it, and will never want to be passive anymore.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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