Have You Tried... these Teaching Tips?
Each year, the Teaching Improvement Program (TIP) - sponsored by the College of Engineering - helps new and continuing teaching assistants to stay up to date on education research, learn teaching techniques for different courses, and reflect on their teaching and student learning. One of the central sessions this year, "Have You Tried...?," showcased easy-to-implement teaching tips from College of Engineering instructors and TAs. A referee (Willis Tompkins, Professor, Biomedical Engineering) kept the instructors on task with his whistle and yellow flag. Read the summaries of their suggestions here, or watch a video of the session on Mediasite! (To find the session video on Mediasite, click the link and then select "Have You Tried...? The Sequel.")
The participants in the session were
- Paul Wilson (Engineering Physics) - Check-in: Building Time Management Skills
- Jim Barner (Electrical & Computer Engineering) - Student Photos: Remembering Your Students
- Samira Azarin (Chemical & Biological Engineering TA) - Visual explore: Engaging Students
- Amit Nimunkar (Biomedical Engineering TA) - Media: Relating engineering to real life
- Thatcher Root (Chemical and Biological Engineering) - Take a break: Doing something different
- Vicki Bier (Industrial & Systems Engineering) - Weekly reports: Pretending to Understand?
- Chin Wu (Civil & Environmental Engineering) - Creative Design: Required, Applied, Enjoyed
(Clicking the links above will jump to individual technique summaries.)
When students are working on a series of large assignments or lab reports, it can be easy for them to become derailed in different ways - some students may put off much of the work until the end, some students may not recognize when their data is problematic, and some students may simply struggle with writing. To help students learn how to effectively manage their time and organize large projects (in-depth lab reports, here), Paul Wilson sets up a series of "check-in" assignments that students complete over the course of the project.
For instance, a few weeks before a lab report is due, students turn in two to three pages of background information, a description of what they will be working on, and a model of what they will be testing. Once students have collected (or generated) their data, they must turn in a spreadsheet with a "complete but raw" form of all of their data, so that Wilson can see their progress and evaluate whether the results seem to make sense - he doesn't want to ask students to invest a significant amount of time trying to analyze "garbage" data. Finally, students show one of their charts in an informal "working group" setting for peer review, presenting their basic analysis and learning from their instructor's and classmates' feedback on their work.
Jim Barner reports that one of the easiest teaching techniques that he employs is to take digital photos of all of the students in his classes. The logistics, he says, are quite easy: During 15 minutes of the first class meeting, students write their names on index cards in black marker, get in line to have their picture taken, and hold the card up in the picture. Then, Barner makes a digital file of the photos that he can refer to before or after class, or even during office hours. While he reports that some students are unsure about the idea at first, almost everyone becomes comfortable once he assures them that the photos are for his own personal use only. The benefits are wide-ranging - taking photos allows him to learn students' names quickly, create a more comfortable and collegial environment by getting to know students better, call on people in class by name, and remember students' contributions more clearly.
Azarin believes that the best thing that a teacher or TA can do is to make sure that students are engaged from the first day of class. Even though getting-to-know-you activities might seem "cheesy," she says, they can be an important key to helping students get to know each other, feel comfortable with the instructor or TA, and begin to participate as soon as possible.
One activity that she learned in a Delta workshop and highly recommends is called Visual Explore: On the first day of class, bring a large group of photographs or pictures of various scenes. The pictures don't have to be related to the subject matter of the course - they can be anything. Then, pose a question - for instance "how do you feel about the coming semester?" or "which picture do you think best represent fluid dynamics?" - and ask them to choose a picture that represents their answer to that question. Finally, go around the room and ask students to share the picture that they chose and say why they chose that picture. Students often have interesting and vastly different interpretations of the pictures, Azarin reports, and the answers spark good conversation, helping students and instructors to get comfortable talking together.
In discussion sections that are often focused on reviewing lecture material and solving abstract problems, Namunkar believes, it is important to remind students of the real-world impact of engineering. During his discussion sections, he shows slides of pictures from the news that have an engineering component - for instance, a picture of an electric concept car and a picture of a new low-cost car - and asks students to share whatever comes to mind when they look at the pictures. Then, he and the students talk briefly about how the news might be related to something that they are working on in class or in their projects. Such a technique, Namunkar thinks, helps to keep students focused on why the work that they are doing matters, even if it may seem disconnected from what engineers work on out in the world.
One fact from education research that engineers don't often realize is that the length of the average human attention span and the length of lecture classes are not the same. While lecture classes are usually 50 or 75 minutes long, the average person's concentration and enthusiasm begins to wane after just 20 minutes, Thatcher Root explains. To combat this natural tendency, Root tries to incorporate small breaks in the routine during every class he teaches in order to "reset people's clocks." For instance, during a lecture about waves, he might have the class get up to do a wave - and then note that while the person-wave traveled around the room, the students (each of whom represent wave droplets) stayed in their seats. This break is not only a change of pace, but a physical illustration of one important concept in fluid mechanics.
Root suggests incorporating several different types of breaks into teaching
because it is useful to "try to get people to change their mode of learning." Other
ideas that he suggests include:
- Posing a problem to the class, and asking them to vote on the outcome
- Writing a one-minute paper on a concept
- Asking students in the back to move to the front of the room
- Handing back homework in the middle of class by asking them to get up, move around, pick up their homework, and go back to their seats.
During lecture classes, Vicki Bier says that she often feels as if she is "pretending to teach" and her students are "pretending to understand" because there is little room for questioning and interaction. Her solution to this dilemma is to ask her students to write "weekly reports" about the topics that they understand well and the questions that remain. These reports not only help her as an instructor by showing her a clear representation of how her class feels about their understanding of various topics, they also help the students to think metacognitively - to think about their own thinking.
She believes that handing in a report of their questions helps students to develop the skill of asking good questions and to take responsibility for their own learning - they must, after all, carefully consider what they know and what they don't know. In addition, the reports help students get the answers to their questions - when there are clear patterns of misconceptions, Bier can makes time to review difficult concepts in a future class. Bier extends one caution, though: While she initially required students to write a report each week, not all students appreciated the exercise. She now offers the weekly reports as an extra credit option, which the students like because it helps them to clarify their understanding and gives them a few extra points.
Chin Wu wants his students to enjoy learning the concepts even in required courses. In his animated style, he shares strategies that he uses in his required fluid mechanics course. First, he asks students why they study fluid mechanics and then he uses the word "EAR" as an acronym for his three reasons. First, and starting from the end of the word, the course is required (R). Second, the course has many applications (A) in the world. Third, the course and application of the fluid mechanics concepts lead to enjoyment (E). Applications range from Hurricane Katrina to rain gardens. Enjoyment comes in the form of synchronated water displays and even music in the classroom.
The video shows Wu's ability to select visuals, graphics, and words to illustrate his points, although you will only hear the music due to technical difficulties in the video itself. Chin Wu ends his segment with a song. As you listen to the words, you will begin to understand the creative and thoughtful process he uses as he selects a wide range of media and real-world examples to help his students learn. The lyrics are "Stirring up the water, stirring up my soul, Light comes to the darkness, come and make me whole."