Teaching and learning part 9

First-year students often complain that I give too much reading assignments. I often use the active learning method in my courses, that means students must read BEFORE coming to class. To make sure they complete the reading, I also give a short quiz before my lecture or asking questions from the reading materials that students must answer. For students who complain that reading is not what they used to as part of their learning, I challenge them by the following activity:

First, I ask them: “How do you learn? Many say: “By listening to the lecture.” Then I give a short lecture and ask them questions. The result is only a few could answer but most could not and they are confused and embarrassed. Only then, I explain the learning concept:

“If you only listening, you will forget 80% of the materials in the first few hours. If you read and listen, you will forget 60% of the materials in the first few hours. But if you read, listening, and participating in a class discussion on that topic, then you will only forget 20% of the materials. Why? Because by listening and organizing the materials in your mind and prepare to participate in the class discussion, you develop your OWN knowledge, your OWN understanding. It could be right and it could be wrong but as you are listening to the class discussion , you continue to refine your understanding, your own view, your own knowledge and you NEVER forget what is yours.”

“What you have listened to my lecture is only “MY knowledge”, not yours. What you read and listen is only a vague information in your head as it is not organized yet. But when you think about it, organizing it to prepare for the class discussion, then it becomes YOUR view and YOUR knowledge. Because it is YOURS, you will NOT forget it. This is why learning by listening is NOT enough. Learning by reading and listening is NOT enough. You only learn by reading, listening and participating in the discussion when you keep developing and organizing your OWN knowledge then you can learn 80% of the materials. To get the 100%, of knowledge you have to apply your understanding in quizzes, tests, and homework when you have MORE time to DIGEST the materials in your mind. This is HOW “true learning” is taking place.

The learning occurs best when the teaching method matches the content and the learning task. If a new concept is something to be learned, then reading and listening to explanations of the concept and prepare to discuss it is the best way to learn. If problem-solving is the skill to develop, then practicing solving problems in tests, quizzes, and homework is the best way to learn it. To learn is to understand something. But to truly understand means you can apply it, practice it. Understand without practice is NOT enough, it is only a shallow understanding, resulting in the ability to talk about it like a parrot mimics the sound. If you learn by memorizing something, you are nothing but a recording machine, an iPod to play whatever sound you download to it. To truly understand something means you can actually do it. To understand and to practice must be combined to develop your personal knowledge and skills.

Of course, learning can happen in many ways, and we each have our preferences about how we learn. But our preferences should not prevent us from learning in different ways. I know some very smart people can learn well just by listening but they are a few. Other smart people can learn by reading only but they are also a few. To most of us, we learn by reading, listening, organizing, and practicing and this is what I like to teach and hope that you will agree with me that you will follow this learning approach.

By explaining the teaching and learning process clearly, most students often follow this approach and I rarely have problems later. No one ever complains about too much reading or too much discussion in class anymore.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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