I view my teaching as a process of continual development, in which I seek to become more able to create authentic experiences for my students; respond flexibly to their needs; judiciously incorporate new technology, techniques and research; and convey to them my passion for the topics I choose to teach.
My graduate student teaching is in the areas of engineering & public policy, and engineering leadership development;1 my undergraduate teaching includes these areas and also fundamentals of engineering analysis. I am familiar with and appreciate many of the criticisms of “traditional” engineering education in Canada and the United States; but—and I have been guilty of this—it is too easy to critique a straw man or stereotype.
In fact, there are exemplary engineering educators at most institutions, and many programs, groups and researchers seeking to explore and rigorously test new curriculum designs, course structures, and classroom activities. Given that I also have substantial research responsibilities, there is too much such material for me to study in-depth—I am not an engineering education researcher. Therefore, instead of a goal to radically transform my teaching in a short time, I aim to continually develop my teaching abilities throughout my career. In practice, this entails:
- Never teaching the same course twice—building on prior content, methods, format, order, etc. through incremental changes aimed at better student achievement of ILOs (and also evolving the ILOs);
- Finding regular opportunities to observe other instructors in action, and examining their teaching for particular techniques I can incorporate into my own; and
- Also regularly reviewing the academic literature on engineering education, so that my improvements are informed by validated research, and not only my own anecdotal experience.
The process of continual improvement is not random experimentation. In order to not risk failing to educate entire classes of students, I make only judicious changes that I have high confidence will lead to outcomes at least as good as my existing approach (or one inherited from another instructor).
Although it is an appropriate strategy for the competitive, entrepreneurial world of mobile apps and devices, the adoption of new technologies “just to see what happens” is not suitable for the classroom—unless that is the sole learning objective. In the vast majority of other cases, there is some other ILO that should not be compromised.
Superficial adoption of technology can also yield a strong negative “gimmick” reaction. Understood cognitively, this actively undermines learning by interrupting students' efforts to keep new concepts in their working memory. Therefore, I think carefully about the student's experience of learning without, and with, any new tool—and only adopt it if the latter is richer.
Authentic student experience
Recent reflections on the academic job market sometimes argue2 against the notion of student as ‘customer’. I agree, but further believe in treating university students—undergraduate and graduate—as adults, or future professionals and researchers. This perspective guides the creation of classroom activities and evaluation which are professional activities, in microcosm.
To be clear, authentic classroom activities3 need not be fun or creative. There is some degree of drudgery4 in engineering and public policy research and analysis—crunching data, carefully constructing models, reading through legislation or long documents with stakeholder perspectives. But authentic activities can show students why professionals and researchers voluntarily choose to engage in this ‘tedious’ work: because it prepares one for problem (re)framing, making persuasive and cogent arguments, or proposing innovative solutions.
Having seen both quantitative and qualitative successes in a variety of courses at UofT and MIT, I seek to construct my own examples by actively thinking about cases which allow this kind of authentic learning. These cases are designed within the constraints of available resources (including classroom, instructor and TA time) and students' level of knowledge; they are refined and evolved based on student feedback.
Passion and motivation
Professionals and researchers also—ideally!—approach their work from a standpoint of intrinsic motivation.5 As future professionals and researchers, students are both learning content, and searching for topics and questions that align well enough with their personal values to let them to develop intrinsic motivation.
As an instructor, my role in this procedure differs according to context—whether students are graduates or undergraduates, in elective or mandatory programs and courses. I have my own research interests—topics towards which I am intrinsically motivated—that may not align with the future career foci of my students. In an elective graduate seminar, I can take a student's enrolment as a sign that they have a strong interest in the subject, and design the course and teach it in a way makes my passion for the topic a model for their own.
In a mandatory undergraduate course, by contrast, many students will be at lower levels of extrinsic motivation.6 In such cases, an expectation that student behaviour reflects passion for the topic will inevitably be disappointed. Instead I can seek to present the material in a more neutral manner, and explicitly guide students in evaluating their reaction/level of interest—leading them to answer, “Is this something I want to learn more about?”
Workplaces of committed professionals with passion for their work are, today, decreasingly hierarchical. Individuals can be encouraged to be actively entrepreneurial in their work—Google's “20-percent time” is the oft-cited example. In addition, engineering and public policy work, and certainly leadership, involve work with stakeholders wherein authority relationships are ambiguous.
For all these reasons a syllabus predetermined by me, the instructor, and followed to the letter, is inauthentic. To the extent possible—and in balance with delivering promised content and experiences—I aim to allow course material to evolve within an offering, and even within particular classes. This allows me to be flexible and responsive to students' speed of learning, particular needs and interests, demonstrating my respect for them and modelling collegial behaviour. Yet, at the same time, I aim to show them how to respectfully request such changes of direction or elaboration—in a way that is mindful of their peers' needs in balance with their own.
These very different topics call for very different course designs, classroom activities, and evaluation; therefore this statement focuses on higher-level elements of my philosophy, common across topics. ↩
In fact, my own role as instructor in such courses may be extrinsically motivated; i.e. by departmental obligation… ↩