kicking old habits

By replacing old teaching methods with new ones based on soccer coaching principles, an engineering professor has hit on a winning formula.

by Linda L. Creighton

Photograph by Brian SmaleIt was the kick that intrigued him at first. Watching his daughter at a soccer camp, Pedro Arce realized that Paula wasn't being taught to kick the black-diamond soccer ball. Instead, her coaches were teaching her a series of smaller skills that, when mastered and put together, would enable her to step up to the ball and confidently send it flying across the field. As a professor of chemical engineering at Florida State University for 10 years, Arce is always alert to teaching methods. He has long favored changes in the traditional lecture approach that routinely result in notoriously high dropout rates for aspiring engineers. Arce had explored the problem, writing several papers that red-flagged the need for a new method to teach engineering. He had even conducted workshops to champion a more student-involved and collaborative effort.

But it wasn't until he watched the coaches at the soccer camp that Arce saw a different way that players learned—being introduced step by step to small aspects of the sport, and then putting them into practice. Athletes were free to make mistakes and learn from them—exactly the dynamic, focused, motivated reaction he hoped to achieve in engineering classes.

“That's what I live to see in my students,” he says. Why not, he reasoned, look at basic soccer coaching principles as a better way of teaching, say, “The Physics of Transport in Heterogeneous Continua”.

But even soccer coaching has a variety of approaches. When looking for soccer camps for his daughter, Arce had been discouraged to find that many of the coaches stressed winning above all, using techniques designed solely to defeat another player or team. It was only when he found a camp in Pensacola, Fla., that used the Brazilian method of mastering individual levels of skills that he enrolled his daughter. “Making mistakes that prevent you from winning gives players a very strong desire to improve and learn,” Arce says.

That freedom—to make mistakes and learn from them—was exactly what was missing in most engineering classes. “Most of the time the professor is determined to make sure material is covered, that's it,” says Arce. “If a student asks a question, a professor often is annoyed at having the lesson interrupted.”

The engineering class instructors, in Arce's view, ought to work like a coach. “This person has the key to unlock new educational environments and achieve a better way for students to train,” Arce says. If instructor could model their approaches after good coaches—changing a “solo lecture into a dynamic learning environment,” as Arce puts it—it could revolutionize engineering education. “I immediately thought, ‘How can I apply this?'” he says.

Game Plan


Florida State professor Pedro Arce has created a “Coach Model of Instruction” with five elements that he says could completely alter the classroom experience for engineering students:

  • Technical aspects: Know the material very well.
  • Tactical aspects: Know when to use a particular drill or change directions.
  • Educational aspects: Know the purpose and levels, and design tasks accordingly.
  • Psychological aspects: Know the players very well.
  • Training aspects: Have the experience to do the job.

Arce began to examine the coaching method with engineering classes in mind. Enrolling in a coaching clinic using the same Brazilian method, he earned a “Master Certificate in Brazilian Soccer”—a license to coach. After taking the course, he realized that kindergarten teachers instinctively use many of the same techniques.

“Kindergarten students are highly engaged in the process of learning and teachers usually do not interfere with the way students work,” Arce says. Too often in college-level classes the only person engaged in activity was the instructor. Students do not question, challenge, or interrupt their engineering professors with the same passion that they had exercised in kindergarten, because of fear the instructor might view it as a waste of time, Arce says.

He decided that lesson plans ought to be linked to the objectives of the semester's work and then finely tuned to the needs students'. The tactic resembled the way a sports coach plans for specific goals in each practice. Arce calls it the “progressive sequences” method of introducing students to the basics of engineering. “In soccer, Brazilians are famous in the development of the player by a progressive approach of learning, where every task is sliced into easier pieces that are first mastered and only thereafter put together by the players,'' Arce says.

An inexperienced soccer player learns to head a soccer ball most quickly if the coach designs drills that first involve the lower back and then the neck, with follow-on drills for arms, running, jumping and defense from other players. Finally, with all those skills taught and learned, the soccer player can put them together in the complex act of heading a soccer ball.

Arce says the same learning sequence is useful, for example, in teaching free-convection flows with homogeneous or heterogeneous heat sources, where the concepts of heat transfer, momentum transfer, and mass transfer are coupled.

Second, the instructor ought to coach the students to work out the solution to the larger problem. Instructors need to closely observe the performance of their students, assess their understanding of the material, and then design activities that would deepen that understanding. Arce likened the approach to the “game analysis” that many coaches use to detect aspects of team performance that need work. Having instructors respond to students feedback just as coaches gauge players during practice would generate the participation and enthusiasm of students in an engineering class.

Photograph by Brain Smale.Instructors who spot weak points in students and come up with alternatives for learning can be more successful than colleagues who rely on explaining a concept over and over in the same ineffective way. As Arce puts it: “A coach that only lectures would be a very ineffective coach!”
Arce feels that without training, teachers are ineffective coaches. “Based on the model elements,” says Arce, “it looks like the Ph.D. instructor only accounts for the technical aspect. Where are we going to get the rest?” Traditionally instructors have not been trained in the art of teaching. Studies have shown that only 10 percent of engineering students nationwide are taught in student-centered approaches, Arce says.

Armed with their “coaching” skills, teachers can change the classroom dynamic from the one-way lecture to the constant interaction that athletes experience with their coaches during practice. Arce uses his so-called “colloquial method” to revamp classroom dynamics. Students become the driving force behind learning. Emphasizing discussion of different points of view, Arce tries in his classes to enable students to learn a new concept or solve a problem themselves. His overall objectives are to stimulate development of students' confidence, and to promote critical thinking, individual judgment, and creativity. To enhance the approach, Arce has his students sit in groups or facing each other, rather than in rows facing the teacher.

Arce has used his coach-instructor approach at three universities. He says the passing rate is higher than 80 percent, and in one course it reached 100 percent. His model for teaching received an award for innovative engineering education last year.

Though he says the approach is demanding for instructors, students face a high standard as well, preparing notes, reading extra material, and working in an “exam mode” every week. Arce says students “hate this method in the beginning” because they are singled out for participation and discussion. For students accustomed to snoozing or daydreaming during boring lectures, Arce has a hearty alternative: “Welcome to the party!”

Even after homework has been graded, students are required to go to the teaching assistant with questions, where they get a different explanation, and then can go to Arce for further questions and discussion. “This way they get several exposures to solving problems,” he says. On exams, students are given different problems to solve with an introduction to new material that is relevant to engineering application. In class, Arce says he tells his students the worst thing they can do is not talk.

“This is a safe environment in which to make a mistake,” he says, so that students are “not afraid to modify and to change.”

Just like a great game of soccer.

Linda L. Creighton is a freelance writer living in Arlington, VA.

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