Teach them to think

While Active Learning may require preparation on the teacher’s part, the reward lies in seeing students exceed expectations

December 18, 2021 11:19 pm | Updated 11:19 pm IST

Train your brain.

Train your brain.

In Montessori schools and business management colleges, activity-based teaching is the norm. Described simply, activity-based teaching means learning by doing and application. Whether in schools or colleges, it’s a rare teacher who uses activities to teach. Most prefer the lecture method because they address large numbers and tend to explain in words rather than “demonstrate”. In a hurry to complete the syllabus, they rarely stop to investigate how much their students have learnt. This often leads to students requiring coaching. One college student told me how she attended coaching before and after college.

During the lockdown, many teachers complained that students absented themselves from the classes after switching on their devices. The common refrain was that online teaching did not allow for interaction. Some instructors built in quizzes into their lectures to ensure attention, but that was more a strategy to keep them awake. Did teachers try to explain concepts through activities, or did they lecture as in offline classes?

Make connections

Eric Mazur, Professor of Physics at Harvard, explains the difference between lecturing and learning. To learn, he says, students must understand and assimilate concepts, be able to relate them to previous knowledge, and connect them with their experience. Above all, students must be “able to transfer one’s learning to a new context.” He was a star performer with high student ratings until he discovered his students were merely memorising and regurgitating what he was telling them. When he realised that they had not learnt to THINK (because a lecture does not allow time for students to think), he changed his pedagogy.

Mazur gave the students word problems to solve by applying concepts to real-life situations. One problem was: Which would get more battered if a heavy truck collided with a stationary car, and why? The students gave varying answers, which showed much guess work at play. He then asked them to discuss the problem with their neighbour. Only after going back and forth with their arguments, did they finally arrive at the answer. Mazur had made them think, which he maintains, is the real purpose of education,

Mazur proved, through his own experiments in class, that learning happens through student interaction and application of the basics. He called this “Peer or Interactive Learning” and popularised the concept. With that, he also felled the myth that a quiet class is good ( https://bit.ly/3IWH28b ).


In India, college teachers often think games are better suited to kids in primary school, but those teaching business administration know that, unless they set activities and practical analyses to understand concepts, the programme will have no value. A marketing professor asked his students to take an object of their choice and sell it to unknown people on the roads nearby. That day, the students got their best lessons in marketing, and understood how hard it is to persuade people to buy. During the lockdown, a computer engineering teacher assigned a project to student groups to design a cycle virtually. One student spoke of how hard her peers and she worked and how much they learnt and enjoyed. “It was the best course we studied!”

Active learning is useful both in offline and online teaching. Once you have chosen specific activities and problems to present the concepts, it is fascinating to observe how fast and tirelessly the time passes and how much students learn. Active Learning requires just a little creativity to prepare for the class, which can initially challenge one used to lecturing. But, with practice, it grows on you. The reward lies in seeing one’s students exceed their performance beyond expectations.

The writer is former professor of English, IIT-Bombay. ceogiit@gmail.com

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