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Taiwan University Professor Yeh Ping-cheng

Finding the Secret to Engaging Students


Finding the Secret to Engaging Students


Passionate about teaching, Yeh Ping-cheng has turned classes on their head and developed entertaining games to teach boring subjects, showing his Taiwanese peers how to engage students in the 21st century.



Finding the Secret to Engaging Students

By Hsiao-wen Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 536 )

The ponytailed Yeh Ping-cheng scoots down the scenic Palm Tree Boulevard on the campus of National Taiwan University on an aluminum kick scooter that he affectionately calls "little silver." Among his students in the Department of Electrical Engineering, the associate professor is widely recognized as the teacher "who gets passionate the easiest."

"Being a teacher is the best job in the world. Not because of the iron rice bowl or the retirement pension, but because we have an opportunity to help many people improve their lives," Yeh writes in his personal blog, in extolling the blessings of the teaching profession.

"A lecturer who is not able to make students grow does not deserve to be called a teacher even if he carries the title of professor," Yeh asserts.

The 40-year-old has always used such lofty standards to assess his own performance.

Off campus, Yeh has gained fame for becoming the first person to conduct courses in the Chinese language on Coursera, the most popular website for free higher education. He is holding up the banner of Taiwan amid increasing global competition between top-notch universities and star professors.

He has been invited many times recently to lecture in Greater China, and on those trips has seen Chinese senior high school students routinely discuss new Coursera offerings, such as an archeology course from Hong Kong University or a computing course from Stanford University.

"They discuss which courses to take as if they were going to decide which movie to watch," Yeh observes. Thanks to the popularity of massive open online courses (MOOC), students are able to decide by themselves what they want to study in the future. Yeh does not want to sit back and do nothing as Taiwanese students risk missing out on this huge learning trend.

The Three Principles of Good Learning

Yeh's course on "probability and statistics," launched on Coursera this summer, has attracted 21,000 students in the Greater China area.

Yeh sees to it that his course topics relate to student life.

He uses the example of a group of sweet soymilk lovers and a group of salty soymilk lovers to explain set theory. Immediately a student from Sichuan Province jokingly reminds him "Professor, there is also spicy soymilk!"

Outsiders are not aware that Yeh has already spent three years on fine-tuning his teaching techniques in order to pique students' curiosity and increase their motivation to learn.

Before that, Yeh believed that his teaching was already at its best.

He recalls an eye-opening experience some three years ago, when he had just been awarded a distinguished teaching award, the highest honor for the top one percent of university teachers. When Yeh, thoroughly pleased with himself for getting the award, taught a class a few days later, a handful of students sitting in the back dozed off, and his self-confidence instantly crumbled.

"No matter how interesting your teaching is, it's useless if you can't engage your students," he says. As a result, Yeh came up with "The Three Principles of Teaching," a pun on the "Three Principles of the People" doctrine of Republic of China founder Sun Yat-sen. Teaching should be of the students, by the students and for the students, the professor insists.

In his course "creating and delivering technical presentations," Yeh does not do any grading.

Instead, his students have to demonstrate their presentation skills in a big auditorium before more than 200 students from nearby Municipal Long-an Elementary School. In what is their final exam, they need to get across scientific knowledge to the youngsters.

"What are the three primary colors of the additive color system?" an electric engineering student asks as he begins a story about Monkey D. Luffy, the main character in the Japanese anime One Piece, and Pikachu, the primary protagonist in Nintendo's Pokemon game series. Pikachu most fears yellow phasers, but Luffy only has red and blue ones. So what should he do? "When he activates the red phaser and the blue phaser together, he can synthesize a yellow phaser and blow Pikachu away," dozens of elementary school students eagerly suggest, all talking at once.

Elementary Students Grade University Students

At the end of the presentation, the university students turn around. The young audience votes with their feet by lining up behind their favorite group of presenters. Long lines of elementary students form behind some presenters, while other presenters end up standing all by themselves, a humiliating experience.

The number of elementary students supporting a team decides that team's grade in the final exam.

Yeh, who was a teaching assistant at the University of Michigan for four years, bemoans that Taiwanese students lag far behind their American peers with regard to expressing themselves, even though their professional skills are up to scratch. Yeh believes that "soft skills" such as giving an oral presentation will be crucial for young Taiwanese when trying to prevail against Chinese, European and American competitors.

"I want my students to go through this ordeal, because it will enable them to feel quite self-confident in the future when they come across customers or bosses who are not as technically adept. They will think: 'I successfully handled the elementary students, so why not adults!'" Yeh predicts enthusiastically. 

"At the Department of Electrical Engineering his courses are the most exhausting, but also the most fun," recalls graduate Lin Kuo-wei, who has now founded his own company.

This is because in Yeh's Probability and Statistics course, students not only need to take exams, they also need to suggest exam questions. Yeh believes this is the best way to stir students' motivation to learn.

Three students form a team that jointly creates questions, works on them as homework and then presents the solutions in class. All this helps build team spirit. Each time a chapter has been concluded, Yeh gives his students three days to come up with exam questions, which are then uploaded to Yeh's website and automatically forwarded through Yeh's special software to other students to be examined and solved. Such "peer grading" compels students to develop "a good taste" for creating interesting problems.

The deadline for handing in exam questions usually expires at around 3 a.m., and Yeh often can't help breaking into wild laughter when he reads through the last-minute submissions on his laptop. These sudden laughter attacks frequently wake up his wife, who thinks her night owl husband sounds like a lunatic.

"When designing this course I didn't think of that side effect," Yeh jokes.

Yeh hands traditional teacher powers such as creating exam questions and grading to his students. The inspiration and creativity he gets back from the students can move him to tears.

One student came up with a probability problem by adapting a famous anecdote: One day, Plato asked his teacher Socrates "What is love?"

Socrates told him to walk through the garden without going back and forth and pick the most beautiful rose he could find. On his walk, Plato picked the first three roses he found as reference points and then picked the first rose he found to be more beautiful than the first three. Question: What is the probability of Plato having picked the most beautiful rose?

When creating questions the students can prove how well-read they are. Even during their finals, some students can't help going online to tackle a few of the probability problems on Yeh's website.

"It's for the same reason that talent shows such as One Million Star and American Idol became popular, it's teaching by laypersons," explains Yeh cheerfully.

Faced with students who grew up with the Internet and electronic devices, teachers will face major challenges in the future, Yeh observes. Unless courses become more creative and apply flip teaching, students will not attend classes, a reality that is forcing teachers to move up the value chain.

"Tell me, what were Socrates and Confucius doing? 'Idle chat' is the key," says Yeh in a mix of English and Taiwanese, incisively explaining that a teacher's values must build on those things that he can only do when interacting with students face to face, namely stimulating debate and inspiring them.

Using Games to Get Students Addicted to Learning

Yeh has incorporated his teaching ideal of "designing classes for students" into his course on Coursera, which features the online learning platform "PaGamO," a Taiwanese phrase meaning learning by playing.

PaGamO, developed at National Taiwan University, is the first online multi-student social game platform and can be used by teachers around the globe.

Several thousand of the 21,000 students enrolled in the probability course on Coursera can be online at any one time to play the learning game, which resembles the online game "World of Warcraft." To the sound of a goosebump-causing soundtrack, students try to occupy and enlarge their territory by answering tricky probability questions. When a player invades the territory of another player, a monster jumps onto the screen with an even more difficult probability problem.

In order to write PaGamO, Yeh put together a team of 12 students who spent the whole summer break in seclusion. Three days per week, they holed up in a meeting room in the Electrical Engineering building from 6 p.m. till midnight, clued to their monitors as they programmed the game.

"We had a great sense of achievement! You could see students even write "strategy guides" for gamers with as much enthusiasm as if they were playing the game," remarks Chiang Sheng-wen, a 23-year-old third-year electrical engineering student, in recounting a seemingly unforgettable summer break experience.

"These kids and I have the same dream. We want to change how people learn. They are also willing to believe that we can change the world," Yeh declares.

Thanks to this concerted effort, Taiwan can now also contribute to Coursera. The greater legacy of Yeh's initiative, however, may be in cultivating a passion for learning in students and finding new opportunities and industries that can revitalize Taiwan.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz