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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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!"
- 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.
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.