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There are two things higher education institutions must do when guiding their students in learning. First, we should teach students how to transfer their critical thinking skills from one context to another. Second, we must engage students in active learning and deep processing to develop their capabilities.

Minerva is a non-conventional college startup where students live in seven world cities and interact with teachers and peers via live videos on an online platform in their four-year education. With its growing popularity and low admission rate, it is described by some as a college “tougher to get into than Harvard”. On 17 February 2017, Mr. Ben Nelson, Founder and CEO of the Minerva project shared his secrets of success in Minerva in a seminar titled “How to save higher education in twenty seven easy steps?” at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

What should we teach?
Minerva believes that higher education institutions should teach students how to transfer their critical thinking skills from one context to another. Their teaching philosophy focuses on providing students with a framework of thinking applicable in different situations. Education is not meant to provide rote solutions, but ideas and patterns, so that when students encounter a novel situation, they can come up with a novel solution.

The fundamental problem in higher education is that we spent years learning things in an unstructured environment before we learn how to transfer. The goal of Minerva is to alter students’ way of thinking and interpreting the world. “It’s like doing brain surgery,” said Mr. Nelson. He agrees that studying in Minerva can be challenging, but by the 3rd or 4th year, students will have learnt how to parachute into any location and make the most out of any situation.

How should we teach?
We must engage students in active learning and deep processing instead of simply lecturing them because deep processing leads to better retention of knowledge. Mr. Nelson perceives passive lectures as an ineffective way to disseminate information as it does not encourage deep processing – students’ knowledge retention rate drops to 10% by the end of the 6th month, meaning a 90% failure rate.

Based on his examination of empirical evidence, he came to the conclusion that “when you go through deep processing, you get memory for free.” If you only push students to memorize something without going through deep processing, the retention rate will most likely be very low.

Higher education is “the gatekeeper between citizenry and leadership.” It is necessary for universities to keep up with changes, or else we may be in the peril of not existing.

A big thank you to HKUST for inviting us to join this thought-provoking seminar.

Further reading:

  1. An introductory video about Minerva
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“[The] place where knowledge formation occurs is right at that edge where you do not know what’s going to happen. If you did, it would just be repetition, it wouldn’t be discovery […] students get very excited at that moment,” said Professor Gray Kochhar-Lindgren, Director of Common Core (CC), after Professor Ricky Kwok’s sharing on March 7, 2017 about his experience of flipping the course CCST9003 Everyday Computing and the Internet.


Last semester, Ricky and his course team began a new teaching and learning experiment. They have developed a series of videos to replace traditional lectures; and delivered 5 game-based workshops for students in their CC class (e.g., solving the Rubik’s cube, defusing bombs in a computer game, and solving encrypted codes). The main driver of the flipped approach was the dissatisfaction with the low energy level observed in lectures. “We (teachers) are just sending out sound waves that nobody cares to receive,” Ricky said.


Participants of the sharing session had to experience this new way of learning first-hand. Prior to the meet-up, they were asked to watch several video clips on “recursion”, one of the algorithms that Ricky taught in his course. When they came in, they had to “compete” in an online game powered by Kahoot to check their preparedness, followed by a team-based, hands-on activity of solving a recursion problem with lego pieces. While groups of students in the actual CC course need to produce a video on the solution by the end of the two-hour class as a deliverable, our teacher-participants were asked to explain their solution to Teaching Assistants within 10 minutes. Feel the adrenaline? That’s what Ricky meant by “learning begins at the end of your comfort zone”.



Ricky learnt from his own experience that the 4Cs – credit, collaboration, competition, and co-creation – were important in providing the motivation that students need. Here is his recipe:

Application in CCST9003 Advantage
Credit All classwork activities counted towards students’ final grade. Students had the incentive to participate in the first place.
Collaboration It is one of the criteria in the grading rubrics. Every group member needs to participate and demonstrate collaboration. Creates room for dialogue and peer-to-peer learning; where stronger students are motivated to help weaker students.
Competition Each group competed with the 29 other groups in the class.

Competitive elements, e.g., the fastest and most accurate team wins, students can leave the class once they completed the task.

An essential element to push for and maintain a high energy level, competition is a good motivator for an individual to strive for the better.
Co-creation A video had to be produced on the spot at the end of each class, showing how the solved the problem. Learning by teaching is encouraged; students can have solid take-aways and a sense of satisfaction when leaving the classroom.

“Just enjoy that learning and don’t care about the marks,” one of the CCST9003 students said in the video interview done after the last classwork activity. Perhaps this is great testimony that all the hard work of Ricky and his team paid off at the end.

The Common Core continued to be a sandbox of experimentation of new pedagogies. This semester, Mr. Matthew Pryor is also flipping his CCHU9001 Designs on the Future: Sustainability of the Built Environment.

Last but not least, feel the beat of CCST 9003 through this video.

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