Towards a Learner-Centric Approach in Engineering Education

The month of April is approaching, and if you are an academic in the UK, your head of department will soon be knocking on your door with your allocated teaching for the next academic year. Not so many years ago teaching allocation was just a tick box exercise for the well-established academic. More often than not, you would be re-allocated the same course modules as the previous academic year, and for the greater part, there would be no further planning required. Your lecture notes for the module will already be available, and all you needed to do was to remember where you last deposited them come the start of the academic year in September.

In those bygone days, university learning and teaching was lecturer-centric. All the lecturer needed to do was to show up in lecture sessions and “profess and expound” his (typically it was a he) knowledge of the subject matter to a largely dumbstruck class. Outside of lectures students would then try to study and master what the lecturer had attempted to pour out on them. Their most reliable study guides were the past exam papers which served to show them what to commit to memory and what to discard.  It was a matter of teaching to the exam, and learning to the exam. Anything that was not examinable was quickly discarded. For the student, learning amounted to little more than committing theoretical facts to memory and mastering the technique of regurgitating the material back to the lecturer in the end of module exams. Those were the days.

Now things have changed. Employers have finally become convinced that they don’t really need knowledge parrots in their workforces. They need productivity, and not eloquent parroting. Theoretical facts alone are no longer enough for graduates to justify their place on the company payroll. What is needed is theoretical mastery, and the ability to apply that knowledge to meet the company’s commercial and social objectives. From day one, the graduate needs to actively apply the knowledge gained at university to real-life working contexts. For engineering graduates this means that they have to competently integrate their knowledge with input from other engineers and other professionals to come up with technically viable systems that meet specified commercial and environmental targets. To do so, the competent engineering graduate has to demonstrate sufficient ability and flexibility in re-adapting, re-moulding and re-applying knowledge to ever shifting commercial and social contexts. So, today, the big question for engineering academics is no longer: Do I have my lecture notes ready for the coming year? It’s now: How can I impart knowledge and understanding to this incoming batch of students so that they are able to actively apply it to new contexts, and after doing so, to be able to re-assess their current knowledge base and adapt it accordingly? And that’s not an easy question. But whoever said true learning was easy?

In a lecturer-centric environment the teaching of an engineering module falls into three neat categories. These are the lecture, where theory is transmitted to the student; the tutorial, where students work through theoretical examples to prepare them for the exam; and, lastly, the laboratory session, where students do standard activity-based exercises to verify concepts learned in class. There is no problem solving, something which practising engineers need to do on a day to day basis in their workplaces. Again, there is no analysis, and neither is there any context-driven selection of theory, two techniques that underpin engineering design. And this is problematic, as the bulk of engineering practice is dominated by analysis and design. Is it any wonder therefore that one of the bitterest complaint about engineering graduates is that they are incapable of applying the knowledge they acquired in their studies to practical work situations?

How then do you make learning worthwhile for both your engineering students and their future employers? Conceptually, this is very simple. Integrate your teaching of theory, with practical activities specifically designed to make students think about what they are learning, and applying that knowledge to authentic work contexts. In practice, this can be quite difficult, especially if you still subscribe to the age-old lecturer-centric idea that students learn all they need to learn from your lectures alone. Given that the standard module typically has 30 to 40 contact hours during which all teaching has to be done, this is a near impossible feat to accomplish. It’s now time to adopt the learner-centric approach. Let students be masters of their own learning, and use your lectures to guide the learning process instead. Use your lectures to signpost and to pace your students through the material, and bring in authentic work-related activities to focus your students’ learning. Remember, in the specification of typical university modules, students are expected to engage in 150 to 180 hours in personal study in each module. Ask your students if they ever do so, and the answer is largely negative.

For discipline specific modules, this may be easy to implement. You could think of a fairly exhaustive group project which students have to do throughout the duration of the course. In electromagnetics this could be the design of a novel antenna. A series of short projects focussing on modelling of electromagnetic fields in various configurations can be used to build up the necessary theoretical competence for students to design a full- fledged antenna system. Of course one thing immediately becomes apparent: for the students to analyse and model the various antenna components they have to be familiar with the software typically used for such work. Hence by using this learning delivery method, it also becomes necessary for students to become familiar with the software and methodologies used by antenna designers. Students therefore learn to master and apply specialised engineering theoretical knowledge to authentic work situations.

What if you are tasked with teaching fundamental concepts like engineering mathematics, electrical circuit principles, or principles of mechanics? The same approach can be adopted, but in this case the emphasis should be on using simulation and modelling software to support the teaching of theoretical concepts. For example, students can gain critical insights into the behaviour of physical systems by modelling the basic equations and formulae that are introduced in subjects like engineering mathematics and mechanics. In addition, the essential features of more complex systems can be abstracted and modelled by the basic theories introduced in the various courses on engineering fundamentals. System modelling using such software as Matlab can be used to inform physical laboratory work, thereby greatly enriching the delivery.

To sum up, a learner-centric approach might appear to be daunting, especially when measured against the laissez faire lecturer-centric approach of yester year. But it is what students and employers now need, and it opens up more ways in which we can engage with our students. Most importantly, it is ultimately the most fulfilling way of approaching learning and teaching in higher education.

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