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.
must also expect students to study more outside of class. This can
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.
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.
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
specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They
can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.