There are no bad students

March 17, 2022 | 08:57 pm PT
John Vu Professor of computer science
Many years ago a student told me: "My high school teacher told me that I was stupid and not good at anything."

I told him, "You have two options: either prove that the teacher was wrong or accept that what the teacher said is true.

"If you choose the first option, I will help you."

After assessing the student's skills, I took extra classes for him to rebuild his foundation in mathematics. To make him feel more confident, I gave him a few tasks that he could complete on his own and constantly gave him encouragement and recognition.

By the end of that year his results were better than expected. Now he is working at Amazon and is doing very well.

There are students who don't study well because they believe they are not "smart enough". When faced with something difficult, they often give up.

Without appropriate measures, these students will develop a defeatist attitude and neglect everything instead of finding ways to deal with the issue.

If you look closely at this mentality, you could see that a majority of them are victims of failures in school since childhood and so feel powerless when it comes to learning.

The reason is that they have lost their basic foundation. For example, some dislike calculations or trigonometry because they lack a good foundation in basic arithmetic. Perhaps in their early school years they did not learn mathematical concepts well. If they don't understand the value of number systems and addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division operations, how can their teachers expect them to go further?

When students are weak in one subject, they lose confidence in learning other subjects too and that in turn affects their studies in general. In the end they start falling behind the rest of the class.

The first thing students need to do is develop self-confidence. Therefore, it is the teachers' mission to let students know they are always ready to help by showing students there is a solution to every problem and that they will receive support.

Some teachers believe their job is only to impart knowledge instead of also participating in their students' learning. If students are too lazy to study, they think it is their problem.

However, I see teaching differently. Nowadays students can acquire knowledge from a variety of sources like textbooks, online materials, websites, and open courses. My job is to guide them and support their learning process.

Even with the best online courses, textbooks and materials readily available, students still will not learn without the right guidance and encouragement.

The motivation or desire to learn is a key factor in the success of students and schools. And teachers can make important contributions to this success.

We are living in a digital world packed with information. Nearly everything we need is available online. Therefore, the role of teachers has changed from just imparting knowledge to guiding, helping and inspiring students to learn.

By clearly defining detailed learning goals for each student, teachers can help change their learning.

As a teacher, I always use the first day of class to explain the contents of the subject, why the students need to study this subject and why certain topics are important and to motivate them.

I also clearly explain why the subject is important to me, why I choose to teach it, the teaching methods I will use, and my expectations from the students.

Most students are excited when I take the time to tell them why they need this subject, what they would be able to do, what skills they would develop, and why those skills will be important for the rest of their lives.

I always add: "If you study well, good grades will come. Grades might be important for you now, but your learning is much more important."

Once students graduate, their grades will go away but their learning will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Another secret to motivating learners is to appear enthusiastic. When a class is dynamic and full of enthusiasm, it provides a true learning environment where students learn from teachers and teachers also learn from students. When students know that their teachers are looking after them, they study harder since they do not want to disappoint people they respect.

These days, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers and students in Vietnam and many countries around the world are being separated by the online learning model.

Indirect interaction through the small screen without face-to-face meetings significantly hinders the enthusiasm and passion for teaching and learning.

Many teachers say they feel lost and disoriented during the online lessons that felt like monologues.

After decades of teaching I realized that when teachers are enthusiastic about teaching, their students are enthusiastic about learning.

In the context of the separation caused by the pandemic, the most important thing that teachers should not lose is the close, vibrant connection with their companions, the students.

*John Vu is the Director of the Master of Science in Biotechnology, Innovation and Computing program, and is a Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. The opinions expressed are his own.

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