PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo FEBRUARY 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 6
Special Double Issue: 2005 ASEE Annual Conference - June 12-15 - Portland, Oregon
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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 not spectators.

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 methodologies.

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 mentoring.

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.

 

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Difficult Crossing - By Jeffrey Selingo
Engineering's New Look - By Thomas K. Grose
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SPECIAL DOUBLE ISSUE: 2005 ASEE Annual Conference - June 12-15 - Portland, Oregon
SPECIAL DOUBLE ISSUE: 2005 ASEE Annual Conference - June 12-15 - Portland, Oregon

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