SMU prof focuses on learning by collaborating

In Eric Lee's class, students solve problems together

Eric Lee thinks one of the best ways for students to learn is to meet in the pub to discuss ideas. Photo: Meagan Deuling
Eric Lee thinks one of the best ways for students to learn is to meet in the pub to discuss ideas. Photo: Meagan Deuling

Eric Lee knows first-hand there’s more than one way to learn. While taking his chemical engineering degree in Victoria, B.C., he discovered he learned best when his peers didn’t understand course material.

He sat with a girl who took beautiful notes and, after classes, he says, he would sit with her and explain what was in her notes. Lee said by the end of the term he was explaining her notes to a group of his peers.

“They thought I was helping them, but really, by teaching them I was learning so much.”

Today, Lee puts the notions of collaboration and discussion to practice when he teaches statistics to graduate students at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

Ross Simmonds, who works in marketing and consulting a local start-up business called Dreamer, graduated from Saint Mary’s with a commerce degree. Lee was his statistics professor in 2009 and, at first, Simmonds says, “we all thought (Lee) was a little crazy, but we appreciated and loved his style because it was so fresh.”

Lee starts the term with a few lectures to give a framework of knowledge. Then he gives examples and students have to work together to get the solutions.

“He didn’t really say: ‘You have to work with this person.’ He basically said at the beginning of the class, ‘figure out the answers, I’m leaving,’ and then he would actually just get up and leave the class.”

Simmonds was expecting a professor who just “told us kind of theory,” but said Lee’s methods work because he gave students examples they could apply to real-world situations.

 “Nobody knows anyone, the first thing I do is get people to talk to each other,” says Lee about fostering a learning environment where students can work together to figure out answers. 

His methods do not work for all students. While most comments on the website, ratemyprof.com, are positive, one says the class is hard for people whose English is weak.

Lee thinks the most effective way to learn is for students to talk to each other and discuss ideas. When given a problem to the class to solve, he says, “many people say, ‘oh, I understand it perfectly,’ and then when you ask them to explain it to someone else all of a sudden they don’t understand and they have to reflect.” Lee says that is when students begin to learn. It’s more difficult, but they get it with practice.

Lee gravitated to this style of teaching, which is known as active learning or team-based learning. He says he is always finding ways to improve his teaching style.

Simmonds said he got a good mark and an appreciation for statistics, a difficult subject, and he learned to “take initiative and self-education.”

Lee strives to get students to openly discuss ideas in his classroom – and long after classes end.

When he was in university, Lee says he “learned the most from debating with my classmates over coffee, or something stronger, because that’s where ideas come from.”