What is good teaching?

What is good teaching?

Wankat, P

Good teaching involves five basic components.

This column is the first in a series in which Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz, authors of Teaching Engineering (McGraw-Hill, 1993), explore teaching strategies and classroom issues related to engineering education.

The vast majority of professors want to be good teachers. In his book Reflective Faculty Evaluation (JosseyBass, 1993), author John Centra cites a study of 35,000 professors in which 98 percent of them considered being a good teacher an essential goal (we’re not sure what’s wrong with the other 2 percent). But what is good teaching? Traditional definitions often fall short, neglecting to specify content, ignoring sustainability, and failing to address the need to promote future student growth. With this in mind, we developed the following definition of good teaching.

Good teaching involves five basic components:

* instructional methods that facilitate student involvement

* the right content

* instructional strategies that maximize teaching efficiency and student learning

* good attitudes on the part of the teacher and the student

* promotion of lifelong learning skills.

By keeping these components in mind, we can all become better teachers. Here are some steps to get you started.

1. Effective Instructional Methods. You can boost learning levels by choosing instructional methods that increase student involvement, such as cooperative groups, simulations, real projects, involvement with industry, and mastery instruction. Writing course objectives and sharing them with students will also increase learning, if you test students on these objectives.

2. The Right Content. The right content includes both fundamentals and practical aspects of engineering. Ruthlessly cull obsolete material from your course outline. When deciding what material to discard, don’t blindly follow textbooks as their authors tend to be very conservative. To determine appropriate technical content, consult your peers in industry and other professors, particularly those who teach follow-up and prerequisite courses. Be sure to stress the importance of communication, interpersonal, and other “soft skills” as well. The average workday requires engineers to use these skills as often as technical ones.

3. Efficient Teaching Strategies. Your teaching will be unsustainable if the ratio of student learning to the amount of teaching time invested is low. Lectures can minimize your preparation time, but they do not maximize learning unless students actively participate. Along with lectures use other methods that encourage students to learn independently (e.g., projects) and to work with other students (e.g., cooperative groups). To ensure students get the most out of class activities, keep the workload reasonable. Solve test and homework problems before handing them out. Remember students will likely need three or four times the amount of time you do to solve a problem. To help improve your overall efficiency, teach a course three or four years in a row.

4. Good Attitudes. Start with a good attitude yourself. Develop rapport with students by learning and using their names. Be friendly and accessible, and praise students even when they only partially attain goals. Explain the content’s power, stressing what students will be able to do once they have learned the material. Most importantly, avoid the four activities Centra identifies as fatal to student morale: particularistic grading; moral turpitude; interpersonal disregard; and inadequate planning. In other words: Grade students fairly; do not harass them or behave unethically; treat them all as individuals; and prepare for the semester and each class.

5. Lifelong Learning. The rapid pace of technological change makes lifelong learning a prerequisite for engineers. To ensure that students learn how to learn, assign projects that require independent work. To teach them how to correct their own misconceptions, create activities where students practice evaluating their own and others’ work. Include a few objectives, homework problems, and test questions in your course that you don’t cover in class.

Phillip Wankat is a chemical engineering professor at Purdue University; Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue’s chemical engineering school The authors welcome readers’ feedback. You can reach them via e-mail at wankat@ecn.purdue.edu and oreovicz@ecn.purdue.edu.

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Sep 1998

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