Teaching a subject

Today teachers must have a specialty in order to teach effectively. If they teach history, they must be an expert in history; if they teach computer, they must know computer well. For example, a history teacher should not teach computer, and a computer teacher should not teach literature, etc. Students learn better from someone who has strong knowledge on the subject that they teach than someone who only read materials from a textbook. An expert in the subject can make the class exciting and students would benefit from the course because the expert teachers could explain things in a way that is easy to understand, as they know exactly what to say and how to say it.

In the past, students were taught to avoid making mistakes as there was only “Right or Wrong” or “Pass or Fail.” Today, making mistakes is an inherent part of learning. The current education principles state that making mistakes does not equate with a lack of ability, but a part of learning as students could learn from their mistakes. As teachers, it is important for us to change the “old concept” about students’ ability to learn. If students fail a test or receive a lower grade, they believe that they probably cannot learn it and often give up on learning. The fact is mistakes are how they learn, but the fear of failure let them believe that they do not have the ability to learn a particular subject. Therefore, teachers must explain that learning from mistakes is much better than learning well on the first attempt and focus more on the effort rather than their ability.

Today understand a concept is not enough, but students must know how to apply it. The “old way” of memorizing theories to pass exams is obsolete; students must demonstrate the skills by applying the theories into practice. But skill performance depends on practice, and learning from a mistake is a part of the practice. For example, when teaching programming course, I would let the students write code in the first three weeks without grading their works in order for them to have time to learn from their mistakes. When students do not worry about “Pass or Fail,” they can focus more on learning. For example, in my programming class, I explained: “Soon most of you would write code just like you write a letter in English. When coding, you will make mistakes, but you also learn from them, so you do not make the same mistake again. The more you code, the fewer mistakes you will make and over time, you will code well.” To encourage them, I use a simple explanation: “Think about the time when you are in elementary school, how long would it take you to write a good sentence? You would misspell some words several times and corrected them, but today you do not make that mistake anymore because you have learned from those mistakes. The same thing will happen as you write code. Learning to do anything well requires a lot of practice. If you look at athletes, musicians, or artists, they all focus on practicing their skills to perfection, and even when they are excellent, they still practice. Do not worry about the time to learn because there are some who learn fast and others who learn slow, but as long as you put in the effort and learning, you will do well.”

When students told me that they were not good at the certain subject, I asked: “What would you do when you have to do this subject in order to get a job? If you do not like Math but your job requires that you must know Math. What would you do? When students were not sure of themselves, I challenged them: “Have you ever learned something you did not think that you could? A few months ago, you did not know how to write code but what happens now? How did you feel once you had learned to write code? Is it too difficult? Even some learn faster than others, but in the end, you all learn the same thing as long as you put the efforts in. Never give up; never feel that you cannot learn something. As long as you put your mind into it, you will be able to do it.”

It is essential for all teachers to emphasize that learning is based on effort, not ability. For example, I often told students when they were discouraged:”Do not worry, this is the common mistake that most students often make, and this is how you fix it.” When there is no fear of failure, students can focus on learning instead of fear of failing . Even when a student fails, teachers should encourage them by saying: “Keep trying.” “Be patient.” “It may take longer to improve your skill so do not worry.” And when the students do well, teachers should praise them: “That is good, your code is getting better, it is almost perfect.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
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