Prism Magazine September 2001



Teaching - Learning to Teach

- By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

Striking the right balance between research and teaching just might be possible—if we teach the teachers how to teach before they become professors. If new assistant professors have had that experience, they will do a better job and have more time to devote to research. The ideal training time is during the doctoral program, but it's never too late to become a better teacher.

For graduate students, the training should begin when they are teaching assistants (TAs). Schools should strive to make this an effective learning experience for the TA by requiring an ongoing seminar and encouraging discussions of teaching with the professor in charge.

A more thorough approach is a class on teaching that covers a variety of methods, including testing and grading procedures and learning theories. Such a course can provide the background for conducting educational research in engineering education (see a description of my course on educational methods in engineering at ).

Additionally, a teaching practicum can be made available for interested Ph.D. candidates who want to be student teachers, receiving supervision and frequent feedback on their teaching from an experienced professor.

Most professors have not had the opportunity for any kind of instruction in pedagogy. They probably learned to teach through on-the-job training, which provides practical know-how but does not build the theoretical background required to become a professional teacher. On-the-job training is the most effective when the teacher reflects on the experience after each class, asks for feedback from students, and discusses teaching with colleagues. Other methods include:

  • Attending teaching workshops. Though they do not provide as strong a background in pedagogy as a formal course, workshops are good for motivation and learning specific techniques. Examples are the National Effective Teaching Institute connected to ASEE's annual conferences, NSF summer workshops, workshops at professional society meetings, and internally sponsored university workshops. Workshops can help professors learn techniques, such as cooperative learning and computer applications in teaching, that they missed out on as undergraduates. These kinds of sessions can help professors adapt to new teaching methods.

  • Going to teaching symposia and listening to papers that are presented. Pay close attention to the content to see what you can use.

  • Reading and reflecting. Start with engineering education literature, including ASEE Prism, the Journal of Engineering Education, proceedings of the ASEE annual meetings and Frontiers in Education conferences (all available online), and other engineering education journals. Also, you might read the all-time citation classic in engineering education, Felder and Silverman's article, “Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education” (Engr. Educ., volume 78, pages 674-681, published in 1988). Other good reading materials include The Chronicle of Higher Education, Change, and College Teaching. Read classic books on teaching and student development such as Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years by W.G. Perry, Jr. and Experiential Learning by D.A. Kolb.

  • Getting feedback from students. Ask for an evaluation from your students immediately after the first test. Pass out 3x5 cards and ask, “What can we (professor and TA) do to help you learn in this course?” Then act on the feedback. Meet weekly with a volunteer group of students, and listen without being defensive. Reflect on what was said. Make necessary changes to improve the course.

  • Asking the TA what material the students are struggling with. TAs often know where the problems are long before the professor does.

  • Forming a coffee or brown-bag lunch group to informally discuss teaching. Offer to be a teaching mentor, or to visit another professor's classes and make (gentle) critiques. If you are brave, request a teaching mentor or ask another professor to attend your classes (or volunteer to be videotaped).

  • Working on departmental structures that inhibit good teaching. Make good teaching an important part of the hiring process by having candidates present introductory material to students. If you are on the promotion and tenure committee, reward good teaching and don't tolerate bad teaching.

And thus you too can be a good teacher and have time left over for research.

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.

Illustration by Lung-I Lo