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Strategies for improving classroom instruction

Monday, January 3, 2011 at 5:50 AM


by James E. Stice
A veteran professor offers strategies for improving classroom instruction
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Teaching What He Preaches
In 1991, Jim Stice and Richard Felder, a chemical engineering professor at North Carolina State University, created the National Effective Teaching Institute (NETI). Conducted each year just prior to ASEE's annual conference, the three-day workshop provides engineering educators with intensive training on teaching fundamentals.
The workshop, underwritten in part by corporate sponsors, is limited to 50 faculty members per session. NETI has been oversubscribed for the past several years, so its organizers recommend applying as early as possible. For more information, see www2.ncsu.edu/effective_teaching/.
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In 1954, just a few weeks into a one-year assignment as an assistant professor in the chemical engineering department at my alma mater, the University of Arkansas, I decided I needed help. I was fresh from an industry job and had never taught, and though I spent many hours preparing my lectures and tests, my students were not learning effectively. They rarely asked questions and weren't doing all that well on my tests, partly because some of my test questions weren't well crafted. I was working far too hard for what I considered marginal returns, both in terms of my own satisfaction and the students' learning.
I asked the department head if he could help me. "Well, no," he said, "I can't think of any specific advice I could give you right now." Unwilling to accept "no" for an answer, I asked if he could recommend any books on teaching. "I guess not," he replied. "There are a lot of books in the education library on the subject, but about 80 percent of the material is garbage. It's not worth your time to read and strain out the useful parts." He looked at me, and I must have had a stricken expression on my face because he chuckled, reached over and punched me on the shoulder, and said, "Don't worry about it, Jim. You'll catch on—everybody does!"
My department head wasn't trying to play games with me that depressing afternoon. Actually, he was a pretty good teacher; a very good department head; and a kind, ethical man with 30 years of practical engineering experience. He just didn't know what to tell me.
I would wager that most people who assume first-time teaching positions today have no more preparation than I did. They are well qualified as far as their technical backgrounds are concerned, but most do not have the foggiest idea about how to teach, motivate, or foster student development. That's disturbing—-particularly since the young people in our classes represent our future. All of us who teach are doing the best we know how to do—we just don't know enough. We can, however, do something about that.
During my 43 years of teaching I have tried many things—some of them have worked; more of them have not. Eventually I developed a personal style and a deep and an abiding love of teaching and of students, and have enjoyed a very satisfying career.
Although there is more information on how to teach effectively than I could ever address in a single article, I'd like to suggest a few general strategies, or habits, that can set you on your way. Practice them until they become second nature, and I guarantee you'll see results—for you and for your students.
  1. Know what you're talking about. Survey after survey shows this to be the most important factor in students' evaluation of their instructor's teaching. Students can easily spot an unprepared instructor. Because we may be a little rusty or less familiar with concepts the first few times we teach a new course, we should do a lot more homework than our students.
  2. Teach and lead by example. Do we want curiosity in the classroom? Do we want our students to possess honesty, dedication, and a passion for ideas? Then we have to embody those traits. We must demonstrate that acquiring knowledge has some payoff—that we are improved by it, that we find it intellectually satisfying, that we become more professional. Otherwise, why should our students bother to learn it?
  3. Respect your students. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil." An important part of respecting students is encouraging them to ask questions and express opinions. Many queries won't be suitable topics for a dissertation, but if students are asking questions, at least they are thinking. Sometimes teachers greet questions with a brusque, "You should already know that—I'm not going to bother to answer," and then bewail the fact that their students never ask questions!

    If, instead, a student receives a civil answer to a question, then others may muster the courage to ask about something else. Before you know it, there may be a very productive discussion going. Not about what you had planned to present, maybe, but about what students are having trouble with or are curious about.
  4. Motivate your students. Learning is far more efficient if the learner is motivated and energized to put forth the effort necessary to learn a task. Incorporate as many motivating forces into your courses as you can.

    Appeal to students' curiosity, or to their desire to succeed. Make connections wherever possible to things that interest them. Hold students' interest by using material peppered with examples and variety, which has more inherent appeal and gets more response than material that is always the same, always abstract. Be a good model of a practicing professional by showing enthusiasm for your field—how else can you expect your students to be excited about what they're learning?

    Limit the use of fear techniques to motivate students. They only work in the short term, and the long-term effects—fear of failure, fear of poor grades, fear of ridicule—are troublesome.
  5. Construct a set of instructional objectives for each of your courses. These should be brief, unambiguous statements that define what the learner should be able to do after completing the course. For example, an objective in a thermodynamics course might be: "Be able to use the first law of thermodynamics to solve a variety of problems, including steady- and unsteady-state processes." This statement is intentionally nonspecific; the problems could range from simple to very complex. A typical semester-long course should have about 30 to 40 such objectives.

    Composing a set of good objectives for an entire course is not a trivial task, but when you've done it, you know what your course is about and what it is supposed to accomplish. It becomes easier to construct exams that measure achievement of the objectives. You don't waste time talking about irrelevant material in class. You can select class activities, readings, and homework assignments that are more focused on helping students achieve the objectives—if an activity doesn't further the objectives, why have the students do it? Objectives even help in selecting a suitable text—the one that best illuminates what you want students to learn or be able to do.
     
  6. Teach students problem-solving skills. You don't teach these skills by showing how you solve advanced problems. You do it by giving students a problem and then providing immediate feedback about how they did. Then you give them another one, and another, and let them practice the underlying strategies. Students know a lot, but most don't know how to apply their knowledge to solve problems different from those they have seen before.

    There are many techniques for teaching problem-solving skills—most involving groups of students, such as pairs problem solving and other cooperative learning methods. We should use these methods, many of which were developed by engineering, math, and physics teachers, not educational psychologists. The techniques require more time than conventional teaching methods, but teaching students how to think might be more important than teaching them more "stuff." No one knows what a student will be doing two years after graduation—the technology they use may not have existed when they were in college, or they might have switched fields. But no matter what they do, they will all have to think.
     
  7. Tell and show. Much of what we teach is abstract. We often apply fairly sophisticated mathematics to derive relationships, build concepts slowly, and reinforce all this with liberal applications of homework. Too often, students jump through all these hoops without really understanding the fundamental phenomena being discussed.

    Combat this by using a variety of methods that make the material more concrete. Use physical analogies, do demonstrations in class (see "An Exercise in Utility," page 30), relate concepts to real-world situations, encourage teamwork—-try anything that can knock on a new door in students' minds.
     
  8. Read up on learning styles. There are several recognized learning style models, including the psychologically-based Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the information gathering- and processing-focused Kolb Learning Style Model, the task-centered Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, and the Felder-Silverman Learning Style model, which combines elements of the Kolb and Myers-Briggs models.

    Regardless of which models you choose to study, the key point is that two students sitting next to each other in your classroom, each with comparable ability, will most likely respond to your instruction in vastly different ways.

    For example, deductive learners prefer to begin with general principles and then deduce consequences and specific applications. Inductive learners prefer to see specific cases first (observations, experimental results, numerical examples) and work up to governing principles. Many college professors are unaware of learning style research, and regardless of their own learning style, their instruction is almost exclusively deductive—-probably because those presentations are easier to prepare and control, and allow more rapid coverage of material. For many students, however, induction promotes deeper learning and longer retention of information, and instills greater confidence in their own problem-solving abilities.

    Learning about the ways in which people learn is the first step toward eliminating this mismatch between students' learning styles and your teaching style.
     
  9. Teach your students something about learning. Once you've figured out something about the different styles, the next logical step is to help students identify their learning preferences. For about $1.50 per student, you can administer the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory. By knowing what their learning preferences are, students can establish efficient learning methods for themselves.

    For about the same amount of money, you can administer the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which can help students develop crucial teamwork skills by making them more aware of their personality traits, and helping them better understand other people's behavior.
     
  10. Construct valid tests. By that, I mean tests that accurately measure what you think you're measuring. Your course objectives are enormously valuable here—they should tell you what to test students on. Following are a few other tips on testing:
     
  11. Don't ask students a question that only three students in the last 10 years have been able to answer satisfactorily. Give them the satisfaction of showing you what they can do.
  12. Don't give students a test that is so long that only the quick ones can finish it. If you think that your students should be able to work very rapidly, without making mistakes in judgment or calculations, ask yourself why. When are they going to have to work that quickly on a job?
  13. Examine the test grades. I'd suggest that if your class average is 45, you may have constructed a lousy test—either it didn't reflect the course material, was too long, or was unfair for most of the students. After scoring exams, you may try to reassure students by telling them that you'll curve the grades, but I don't think that makes most of them feel any better. The high-scoring students who made 60 or so won't be happy; the average student with 45 points may think, "Why am I in this class (or this major)? I worked hard and still missed more than half the questions!"
  14. Include a question on the test that separates the real thinkers from the pack, a question that requires thinking at the analysis or synthesis level.
In summary, think of your classroom as your teaching laboratory. A few experiments may be just what you need to get through to your students, many of whom just need some successes, the feeling that some of us care, or enough "Aha!" reactions to keep them going.
I don't remember the source, but a revered teacher once said, "Teaching isn't what I have to do—it's something that I get to do." If you, too, love teaching that much, then you know that the only thing that makes it more satisfying is doing it better.
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An Exercise in Utility
When I was first becoming familiar with learning styles, I often taught a process control class to chemical engineering seniors. As with most instructors, I gave students several assignments that required deriving and solving differential equations, the "language" of control engineers. Many time-varying processes can be described by relatively simple linear differential equations.
One of the problems I liked to have students play with was the variation with time of a mercury-in-glass thermometer reading. A thermometer is plunged into a constant temperature bath containing a liquid that is 30oF warmer than room temperature. The students derive an equation expressing the temperature reading as a function of time, the characteristics of the thermometer, and the difference between room temperature and the bath temperature. They then solve the equation with LaPlace transforms and plot the result, which should roughly match a textbook figure showing the same type of curve for similar systems.
Thanks to my explorations with learning styles, I realized that this type of presentation was okay for students who are abstract conceptualizers like me, but might not work for those who prefer concrete experience. I rigged up a classroom demonstration for the sensing students, using a thermometer, a stopwatch, and a thermos of hot water. Three volunteers obtained data, then copied the data on the board for everyone to plot. Of course, the plots looked like the ones they had generated using the abstract method, and like the one in the book. No one fainted from ecstasy, there was no applause—in fact, there were no visible reactions at all.
I decided the whole business must have seemed Mickey Mouse to them and presumed it was a failure until after class, when about eight students descended upon me and asked if I planned to do more of this type of instruction. "Well, do you want me to?" I asked. "Yes," they said, "Now we know what you mean!" They told me that they had essentially been playing math games with similar material for years. They could and did do the math, but the results didn't mean anything to them. This time, they were working with real data, and the results agreed with their math. First-order systems (and there are hundreds of them) really did act like that. Wow!
Studies of learning styles have shown that slightly more than half of undergraduate engineering students respond best to this type of visual, hands-on instruction. So put down your chalk and show students what you're talking about.
James E. Stice is the Bob R. Dorsey Professor of Engineering (Emeritus) at the University of Texas at Austin, a founder of the National Effective Teaching Institute, and a 1998 ASEE-NSF Visiting Scholar.

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