Teaching and Learning part 8

A professor wrote to me: “I read your blogs about encouraging students to go to college. I disagree because I think most of our students would be better to go to vocational schools, NOT college. The reason is many of them go to college because their parents want them to go or because their friends are going to college. These students have no motivation to learn anything but only want a degree to satisfy their parents or having a proof that they go to college. The reason is we have many college graduates with no skills and no job. I think it is time to stop encouraging students to waste their time in college….”

I wrote back to him: “Of course college is NOT for everybody and some students may be better to go to vocational schools. However, for many years of teaching, I found that the reason many students who did not study seriously in college is due to the lack of career planning and understand the value of a college education. A career planning is an ongoing process that helps students to manage their learning and plans their future career. It should start early in high school, prior to going to college. Every student must think about their interests, values, skills, and preferences. They need to have enough information so they can explore many options for their lives and adjust their learning to manage their future lives. Without proper information and guiding available, some students just listen to their parents and friends instead of making the decision for themselves about what they want in life.”

“There is another reason that students do not put efforts in college and that may have something to do with the way they are taught. Even in this fast-changing time, many colleges are still focusing on the tradition of teaching abstract theories, then based on annual tests to determine the educational levels. The system focuses more on passing tests instead of developing skills. Students do not understand what they do with these theories but have to memorize them to pass tests and learning is losing the meaning. If we continue this way of teaching, students have to passively absorb large amounts of knowledge without any idea on what to do with them.”

“To promote learning, we need to change the way we teach with a focus on the application than theories. The “transfer of knowledge “from teachers to students is NOT enough but students must be able to apply it to do something meaningful. Learning should NOT be memorizing abstract concepts based on textbooks but it should describe what students will be able to do after they have learned. Basically, it is about the application of knowledge, NOT just memorizing the knowledge. If each course consists of many tasks, each focuses on the application of certain knowledge then it is easier for students to learn rather than just abstract theories. It also is easier to change the tasks when technology change and it will make the course more flexible to adjust to the changing market.”

“In the first week of class, I often ask students: “What job do you want after graduation? When they give the answers, I continue: “What skills are those jobs require? And let students come up with a list of skills that they must have. From these lists, I explain the course content which consists of several tasks that they must learn, each task is focusing on a particular skill that correspondent to the students’ list. By doing that, students know what they must learn, what they need to do to acquire the skills, and what they must be able to do to meet their career goals.”

“Every summer, I spend the time to research on the job market requirements. I read all the job descriptions from technology companies and identify the tasks that student must learn in order to do these jobs. I analyze each task and correlate with the content of my course to determine the process that students must follow and what decisions they must make. From there, I can write the learning outcomes. For example, by learning this XXX, students will be able to do ZZZ. I determine the prerequisite relationship among these learning outcomes so I can arrange certain skill need to be mastered before another so I can structure my teaching material accordingly. Once this activity is complete, I can organize the instruction and arrange them in a logical way that shows how they relate to each other. By doing that, I can create set of tasks that show a prerequisite relationship among the skills that students must learn.”

“This is the new way of college teaching. As you organize your course, you must identify the tasks necessary to accomplish each outcome by asking yourself “What must the students know and be able to do when they leave this course?” As you teach, be sure to identify the learning outcomes and the benefits first so students understand the reason WHAT they need, WHY they need, HOW they learn these skills. Before moving to a new topic, I always review the outcome to ensure that students can accomplish it. In this teaching method, students are motivated to learn and often to prepare themselves to learn. You should have some pre-class readings so students will read them before coming to class so they can spend the time to discuss the materials in class rather than just being passive sit quiet and listen to what you teach.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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