The most important skill that I want every student to walk away from my classes with is the ability to reconstruct the knowledge from that course as needed. It is neither possible nor desirable for a student to memorize every fact or formula presented in a course. If, however, the student understands the concepts and can apply them, the student will have the ability to identify from their conceptual understanding of a topic the concrete facts needed to solve an engineering problem and the appropriate resources they should reference in doing so. In order to prepare students for success in the classroom and their future professional work, I see my role as a teacher to be one that enables student growth not only as critical thinkers and problem solvers, but also as lifelong learners.
Because engineering students will enter professional environments where their primary responsibilities will center around problem-solving, I inform my teaching practices with methods of discovery-based learning that value both individual and collaborative work. In my undergraduate engineering education, I learned the most working through problem sets with others in the class. In my classroom, I encourage students to work through problem sets and other homework in study groups so that they are exposed not only to the material, but to others’ methods and ways of thinking about problem solving.
While collaboration is essential for students to learn new ways of thinking about problems, I believe that individual work is also essential to prepare them for the division of labor that often occurs in the workplace; peer review of code is a standard industry practice for computer engineers receiving feedback on their work. Therefore, I also assign individual programming projects that include a set time for peer review before submission. Individual assessment is most effective in projects where students each have a different problem because the feedback students receive from their peers should be about design and style choices and the lack of an incentive for plagiarism makes students more comfortable sharing their work.
As a teacher I avoid direct lecture in courses because long presentations do not engage students and I have observed the ways in which students then fail to retain, contextualize, or recall the information when needed. It is important to account for diverse learning styles by using a variety of instructional methods. I generally lecture for about fifteen minutes, have the students work in groups for 45 minutes while visiting with the groups and answering questions individually. After the first hour, I pause for a discussion of the class’s progress, address the most common mistakes and problems, and allow the students to bring up other concerns before resuming group work for the remainder of the workshop.
To establish a knowledge base, students do benefit from a foundational knowledge of concepts. However, while memorization and recall in the form of quizzes and summative assessments can be helpful, they only get students so far; it is equally valuable to teach students to be resourceful and savvy researchers and to encourage growth through more formative assessments. Assessment of memorization is, however, much simpler than assessment of a student’s ability to think critically about their problem solving method for engineering problems. One way to assess this critical thinking ability is to have students write a reflection/rationale as part of an exam or project. For example, giving students a piece of faulty example code and having them discuss their thinking process in debugging it allows me as an instructor to assess not only whether they know how to write code, but also whether they understand how and why it works and ways to think about creating a solution.
Finally, in addition to the structure of the course and the feedback I provide as a teacher on various assignments, I maintain that no method can replace addressing students’ questions about material or concerns about their education, careers, and lives directly. This also needs to be supplemented with peer mentoring and collaborative knowledge building outside the classroom. Using a class wiki and other collaborative technologies allows students to document their most common questions and to discuss issues central to their personal growth. By participating in these online forums alongside students, I guide students’ thinking process while allowing them to peer mentor as much as possible.