By James L. Melsa
WHAT WE SHOULD BE FOCUSING
ON IN ENGINEERING EDUCATION IS LEARNING. NOT TEACHING.
Many people have suggested that although it is possible
to recognize good teaching, it is difficult to define
good teaching. I submit that a focus on evaluating teaching
leads us down the wrong path. Educational institutions
that care about educational outcomes need to focus on
learning—the "L" word—and the
real needs of learners.
In the past we have focused on teaching, and the
teacher is reflected in the title we assign to our educational
staff: professors. A focus on learning might have given
us titles such as mentors, guides, or coaches. Most
schools teach material that may be better learned.
The shift from a teaching-oriented paradigm to a
learning-based paradigm is much more than a simple semantic
change. For some, it may be a dramatic shift in the
basic way that we think about the educational enterprise.
In the teaching-based model, the teacher works hard
while the students listen—some might suggest rest;
in the learning-based model, the students work hard,
learning while the mentor listens and guides.
The teaching-based paradigm focuses our thinking
too exclusively on the classroom as the place where
learning occurs. Learning can take place in a wide range
of ways, including co-op experiences, summer jobs, and
laboratories. Learning demands that students be participants
Many business organizations used to advance the notion
that they couldn't define quality but that they
would know when they saw it. This mindset did little
to improve quality until these organizations began to
realize that quality must be defined by customers. They
then translated this definition into meaningful measures
to ensure that progress was being made. Learning is
also a process that can be measured and improved; we
too must come to understand continuous process improvement
Education, like manufacturing, has been using the
old quality-control paradigm that relies on inspection
to eliminate defective parts. Ineffective practices
are left in place while more and more effort is put
into better inspection practices. Universities are making
the same mistake when they use a variety of examination
vehicles to "inspect" quality into their
product. As the "poor" students are weeded
out, the educational practices that resulted in the
failure are not questioned. The old paradigm classifies
and sorts students into categories under the assumption
that ability is fixed and unaffected by effort and education.
The new paradigm develops students' competencies
and talents under the assumption that, with effort and
education, they can be improved.
There is ample evidence that learning is significantly
enhanced through cooperative experiences among students
and between students and faculty. But educational institutions
discourage teamwork skills by continuing to employ competitive
practices. If a course is graded on the curve, the "smart"
student doesn't help others because it will raise
the curve. Yet, the presence of bright students provides
extraordinary learning opportunities through peer-to-peer
It is time for us all to become students of the learning
process and of how to really measure the outcome of
that process. The facilitation of learning is a topic
worthy of serious faculty consideration. We need to
stop worrying about "good" teaching and
start worrying about how the learning experience for
our students can be improved.
James L. Melsa is dean emeritus of Iowa State
University's college of engineering.