ASEE Prism Magazine - Oct 2001



Teaching Toolbox

Teaching - an Over-sttuffed Curriculum

- By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

No professor has ever complained of having too little material to cover in a course or the curriculum—there is always too much. The amount of information that students need to know keeps expanding, and rarely is anything ever removed from the curriculum. First and foremost are the new ABET requirements for teaching communication, teamwork, ethics, global awareness, current events, and continuing learning that have to be addressed. Then there are new developments in all disciplines. So how can you cope?

Toss out obsolete material (which often means anything not computer oriented). Graphical procedures are obsolete unless they aid student visualization. Nomographs are passé. Exact solutions obtained with a computer are preferable to approximate shortcut calculations done by hand. Since students ignore theory unless they're going to be tested on it, either start including test questions or scrap it. And of course, removing stuff is easier said than done. For example, textbook writers and publishers don't do it because they are afraid that professors won't use their books and students won't buy them.

Be selective in what you teach. If there are 20 ways to solve an engineering problem, present the simplest method that has the most practical application first. This will be the easiest approach to understand. Demonstrate what its shortcomings are and then cover one other method in detail. Don't cover methods unless they're used in practice even if they are of historical interest. Since you can't cover everything, help students learn how to pick the best approach.

Use teaching methods that help you cover the most material. Expect students to come to class prepared. Short quizzes or questionnaires on the reading assignment can help. Hand out partial class notes and use them in your lecture. Such notes help provide more coverage without sacrificing student learning. Don't review material in class—instead refer students to the Web.

Increase the amount of time that students spend working on the course material, including reading and studying, tackling problems alone or in study groups, working in the laboratory, completing writing assignments, and performing computer simulations. Expect three hours of work (including class) for each credit hour, which means a standard three credit class would involve nine hours of work a week. Schedule two- or three-hour recitations, which are small groups that meet about once a week, so students can work on problems together. Base a small amount of the course grade on recitation attendance. Use mastery learning, which is a method where students study material, move at their own pace, and retake quizzes until mastering the material, as defined by achieving a specified grade on a quiz. Use computer simulations, groups for homework, and other methods that increase the amount of time that students spend on their studies outside of class. See for more suggestions.

Have the students simultaneously cover technical material and ABET criteria such as teamwork and leadership skills. Have the students work in groups. Require oral presentations and writing in technical classes.

Students love extra credit, so use it to encourage them to learn on their own. Have the students earn extra credit by solving a problem using a mathematical method or software simulation package that is not covered in class.

Look at your entire curriculum. Instead of duplicating material, use the basics for different applications in subsequent courses. For example, one might cover the basic ideas of thermodynamics in a thermodynamics course and then use those ideas for phase equilibria in a separations course, for reaction equilibria in a reactor engineering course, and for entropy analysis in a design course. Help the students learn how to generalize about how to apply the basics to new engineering problems. This makes them much more flexible and valuable as engineers. Make sure the students learn what they are supposed to in the prerequisite courses so that it does not have to be re-taught.

Expect students to learn some of the material on their own in laboratories and design courses. This reduces coverage needed in prerequisite courses and helps students learn how to learn.

Expect students to learn on the job in co-ops and internship positions, and through service learning and extracurricular activities. These activities are particularly good for learning leadership and interpersonal skills. Require students to reflect on what they've learned. They can do this by discussing their experiences in groups or by keeping diaries.

Consider developing a curriculum with tracks or options. For example, a civil engineering major can have the option of taking a number of classes in traffic engineering, construction engineering, or other tracks.

In short, if you don't try to cover everything in class and instead encourage your students to learn on their own, you may find that it is possible to cope after all.

Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school.