Here’s how I’d like to teach engineering to college students – it’s the way I was taught:
- Give lectures in which I chart a course through the subject, explaining key ideas, deriving key equations, and using worked examples to enhance understanding and model the problem-solving process.
- Supply the students with lots of take-home problems to solve and lots of short questions that challenge the students’ understanding of the material as well as their ability to write coherent explanations of engineering phenomena.
- Be able to presume that the students will actually attempt those problems in a timely manner, in an environment that suits them.
- Provide feedback through the provision of detailed worked solutions.
- Be on hand to provide further feedback in person or by putting on extra tutorials, or whatever.
The fatal flaw in all of this, though, is Step 3. The sad fact is that I can’t presume that significant numbers of students will do the problems in their own independent learning time. I think that is the fundamental challenge facing higher education in Ireland, and probably elsewhere. The modern world is too distracting for youngsters. To solve engineering problems, you need to think hard and that means locking yourself away with no distractions – for hours at a time. (I suspect this applies equally well to the humanities – to write a good essay you need to be completely focused and be willing to write, re-write and re-write again.)
So my lectures include lots of ‘active learning’ and about half of my lecture time is taken up with students solving problems, sometimes collaboratively, sometimes on their own. (I never force students to work together.)
It all sounds very progressive because what I do tends to sit nicely with the educational zeitgeist. But it is the result of pragmatism, not belief. It doesn’t really stem from any sense that this represents good practice.
The price I have chosen to pay is that I cover far less material than I would if I taught the way I want to. My reasoning is that it is better for the students to learn a small amount of material well rather than learn a lot of material badly.
I feel consistently guilty about this because I am convinced that the more you know the better you become at solving problems and being creative.
So by diluting the content of my modules, I feel like I’ve made a pact with the devil. But I don’t think I’m alone in this.