Teaching to Learn, Learning to Teach

Brenda Ogle -- image credit: COE portraits Brenda Ogle says she's used active learning techniques in every class she's taught since joining the engineering faculty. Such techniques engage students of different learning styles and push students to develop their own understanding of concepts. They also provoke strong reactions among students and faculty alike. Last year, Ogle decided to find out how well student-centered teaching would work as an active learning technique. Would students learn successfully if their peers did the teaching?

Ogle, an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, says the idea grew out of her own experience as a new faculty member. Before coming to UW-Madison two-and-a-half years ago, she had done little teaching. The process of designing and teaching new courses helped her solidify and deepen her understanding of concepts she thought she had mastered much earlier.

"I realized that I understood certain concepts more deeply after successfully conveying them to someone else," she says.

Ogle turned to the Delta Program for Research, Teaching, and Learning for help in designing and running her course. According to their home page, "(Delta) supports current and future science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) faculty in their ongoing improvement of student learning." Delta matched Ogle with a graduate-student intern, Elizabeth McNeill. McNeill, a sixth-year student in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, helped Ogle design, teach, and evaluate a graduate-level course on extracellular matrix engineering.

The course included a multi-layered active learning component. Each student led one lecture incorporating at least one active learning technique and led the class in a discussion of one journal article relating to extracellular matrix engineering. At the end of the semester, the two women analyzed student attitudes and competencies through pre- and post-course surveys, in-class discussions of teaching techniques, and instructor evaluation of student work.

Elizabeth McNeill -- image credit: Elizabeth McNeill In October, McNeill presented the pair's findings at the American Society for Engineering Education's North Midwest Sectional Conference. The paper, "Active Learning Through Teaching in an Extracellular Matrix Engineering Course for Biomedical Engineering Graduate Students," won the 2008 Edward F. Mikol Award. This award recognizes the best paper presented at the conference.

Ogle and McNeill found that students learned well when they taught each other. The eleven students in their course gained confidence both in their content knowledge and in their ability to lead a class discussion. Although Ogle has not yet analyzed the data on student content mastery, she notes that confidence unlocks the doors to student's learning.

Ogle says that in talking with students every day, not only about the course subject matter but also about pedagogy, she began to realize what students need in order to have a successful learning experience. She refers to these key ingredients as the 3 C's: complexity, clarity, and confidence.

"First, it was important that the activity was complex enough--that it was actually challenging," says Ogle. "The second thing was clarity. The students needed to know what we were asking them to do and why we were asking them to do it. The last thing, which was perhaps the most important, was confident execution. If the instructor actually believed in what they were doing, it was more often successful."

According to McNeill, the frequent teaching evaluations had another benefit. "It really helped the students develop their communication skills," she says. Early in the semester, students would give only vague feedback, like "good job." By the end of the semester they became much more specific and would comment on how specific teaching techniques helped clarify particular topics. "The students started thinking more critically about the act of teaching and communicating effectively with their peers," says McNeill. These improved communication and public speaking skills will be important as students enter the work force, either as professional engineers or in academia.

In their article, Ogle and McNeill argue that students can teach each other not only content, but also alternative teaching techniques. According to their study, students were most comfortable with the two active learning techniques that they saw modeled the most frequently in class: case studies and think-pair-share. In think-pair-share, students first think about a question individually, then discuss their thoughts with a partner before the entire class reconvenes to discuss the problem. According to Ogle, however, the quantitative data hides an important student preference that came to light during class discussions. "Think-pair-share was the easiest to fit into the course content," she says. "It was challenging without taking up a lot of time. Case studies are much more time-consuming . Students were hesitant to sacrifice content for a long active learning activity."

Ogle and McNeill argue that engineering students need more exposure to a variety of teaching techniques. "Students are used to learning from a professor," says McNeill. "You sit in class. You listen. You take notes." Those students who excel at learning in this way rise to the top of their class and are more likely to pursue graduate level work.

In their paper, the two argue that "The problem arises in that these students are the future educators and faculty members who will be teaching classes to students of all learning styles, not just those for [whom] a lecture based format works well."

Familiarizing graduate students with alternative teaching strategies increases the likelihood that they will use such strategies later. This will create a learning environment that meets the needs of students of varied learning styles and will enable the College of Engineering to more effectively educate the engineering professional of the future.

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For more information about the ideas in this article:

1) Delta Program in Research, Teaching, and Learning

Delta offers programs, graduate courses, internship and certificate programs, monthly roundtable dinners, workshops, etc., geared towards helping graduate students, post-docs and faculty become excellent professors.

2) American Society for Engineering Education

ASEE is a non-profit organization committed to furthering education in engineering and engineering technology. They produce the peer-reviewed, international Journal of Engineering Education and the popular magazine Prism.

3) "Active Learning Through Teaching in an Extracellular Matrix Engineering Course for Biomedical Engineering Graduate Students"

McNeill and Ogle's Edward F. Mikol Award-winning paper.