ASEE Prism Magazine - September 2003
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It's About Time

- By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

There’s no getting around it. Learning requires a certain amount of time, but many students would rather be checking their e-mail or chatting with friends than hitting the books. In a recent study, almost 25 percent of first-year students reported they study less than 10 hours per week outside of class, with only 12 percent saying they spend more than 25 hours on school work.

The problem is that engineering is a particularly rigorous course of study, requiring more discipline than many young people have. We believe engineering colleges should increase the hours of structured in-class time for first- and second-year students. More courses should involve extensive recitations with students doing cooperative group problem solving. A supplemental instruction course coupled with a core course is another alternative. This method centers on group problem-solving sessions run by instructors who have nothing to do with assigning grades in the core courses. By increasing student effort and providing opportunities for students to be successful, supplemental instruction courses can help students learn the material and improve their grades in core courses by one to two levels.

We must also expect students to study more outside of class. This can sometimes be accomplished by assigning students tasks they actually enjoy, such as computer simulations to solve realistic problems, or by giving them “what if” questions. We’ve found, for example, that most students enjoy Web searches. Another way to encourage students to study more is by assigning group projects and letting the participants pick the topic. A combination of studying alone and in groups seems to work best. Group work motivates students to focus on the task at hand. And based on our experience, there is less need for special tutoring and extra office hours when groups tackle the homework. To make this work, though, you may need to be creative—disguising homework as “extra credit” or having a debate between teams to spark interest and effort.

Involving students is a surefire way for them to learn. Cooperative group learning, computer simulations, guided design and problem-based learning are methods we’ve used successfully. Keep in mind that students need to stay involved with tests and assignments even after the work has been turned in. Students must understand and use the feedback to correct or improve their results. You can encourage them to revise their work by offering extra credit.

The majority of engineering students are intelligent enough to succeed in college. Motivation is what often separates one student from another. Although we would rather that students be motivated internally, external motivators have to sometimes be used. Personal attention, particularly from teachers, can be a strong external motivator. You can do this by using students’ names, knowing something about them, and showing interest in their professional progress. Co-op or internship work sessions, service learning, undergraduate research, and tutoring others are good ways to keep students focused. By working together with other faculty members, you can ensure that lessons on how-to-learn are reinforced from one semester to the next. Improving student learning does not require further research and study. All of the necessary pieces have been studied and piloted—the challenge is to put these pieces together into a coherent program.


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. They can be reached by e-mail at



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