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Learning specialists help point the way to better teaching.

Engineering professors’ teaching approaches are often rooted in their own experience as students. Conceptions of teaching develop over a lengthy period and are often quite resistant to change. Our study investigated whether faculty approaches to and conceptions of teaching can change as a result of collaboration between engineering faculty and learning specialists. In particular, we sought to discover whether faculty members would shift from an “information-transmission, teacher-focused” approach to teaching to a “student-centered, learner-focused” approach, the kind that has been shown to promote deeper and more meaningful student learning.

In the first approach, lectures are used to present the subject matter, and instructional materials are based on available resources and the teacher’s individual knowledge. Students take an exam at the end of the course, and success is judged on the extent to which the students’ answers match the textbook or the teacher’s perceptions. In the second, the teacher organizes the course around the students’ existing knowledge of the subject matter, and a variety of methods is used for instruction. Instead of rote exams, assessments are more open-ended and qualitative.

The faculty in our study, who are all associated with an engineering research center (ERC) funded by the National Science Foundation, participated to varying degrees in what we refer to as “collaborative reflections.” These collaborations, which occurred within the actual classroom environment, consisted of ongoing reflection and discussion with learning scientists about how educational principles can be effectively applied to particular learning and teaching goals. Engineering faculty also worked to design learner-centered instruction, develop innovative course materials and assessments, evaluate student learning, and coauthor education research articles.

We found that faculty who were extensively engaged in these activities showed more favorable approaches toward student-focused teaching. A distinguishing characteristic of deep engagement is the extent to which faculty reflected on their design efforts in a formal and explicit way. Extensively engaged faculty not only experimented with curricular design, adopting new course materials and lecture methods, but were also willing to refine teaching practices based on a critical evaluation of assessment data.

Faculty with minimal engagement tended toward a more knowledge-transmission, teacher-focused approach. Their approaches were not significantly different from other faculty who were not associated with the ERC and who were used in the study for purposes of comparison. Moderately engaged faculty, who attended meetings, conversed with learning scientists, and applied some new principles in their teaching, also did not significantly change their approach. One explanation is that they did not reflect on their teaching and learning materials the way that extensively engaged faculty did.

In general, faculty were more likely to undergo a conceptual change in their approach to teaching only if their curricular design efforts were coupled with multiple opportunities for evaluation and critical reflection, letting them probe for a deeper understanding of the pedagogy and how it relates to the way students learn a particular topic.

If the ultimate aim of instruction in higher education is to help promote meaningful student learning, faculty teaching approaches become a critical factor in determining the quality of that learning. Reflective pedagogical activities have a significant impact on changing faculty approaches.

Ann F. McKenna is the director of education improvement in the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University. Bugrahan Yalvac is an assistant professor of science education at Texas A&M University. Gregory Light is the director of the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University. This article is excerpted from “The Role of Collaborative Reflection on Shaping Engineering Faculty Teaching Approaches” in the January 2009 Journal of Engineering Education.




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