Engineering education: Now is the time to change

In a book published in the year 2000, entitled Learner-Centered Assessment on College Campuses: Shifting the Focus from Teaching to Learning, Mary Huba and Jann Freed asked the question:

 “Tomorrow’s citizens, tomorrow’s leaders, tomorrow’s experts are sitting in today’s college classrooms. Are they learning what they need to know? Are faculty using teaching methods that prepare them for future roles?”

Then, the main mode of teaching in engineering schools, and pretty much everywhere else within the university system, was the time-honoured, traditional, teacher-centred, lecture model. The main characteristic of this method was the reciting of material from textbooks, and passive, rote-learning from students. Then, the main assessment method was the end of course exam. And this was characterised by a tendency to prioritise rote learning as opposed to informed engagement with the study material.

Fast-forward to the year 2019, Mary Huba and Jann Freed would have to rephrase their question to ask:

 “Today’s citizens, today’s leaders, today’s experts are sitting in today’s college classrooms. Are they learning what they need to know? Are faculty using teaching methods that prepare them for present and future roles?”

Why? Because tomorrow has arrived. And it doesn’t look pretty.

Unlike in 2000, this time around changes are sweeping through higher education, and new forms of student-centred, active learning approaches are now in vogue. Yet, the traditional approach, characterised by lectures, passive learning and exams still dominates in large swathes of the university system.

As engineering academics, we can easily forget that the world that our students are graduating into is no longer the same world that we graduated into thirty or forty years ago. Occasionally, we do get shocked when the evening news announces, yet again, the collapse of a high street brand name. However, come the next day, we go back to our academic duties in the world-acclaimed universities that we belong to, and continue teaching our students the same way that we have taught them in the past ten years. We are used to this, and we like it. We know our lecture notes by heart, to the extent of even knowing when to make that dramatic pause, and when to recite that yesteryear joke.

Our lectures might be boring, but they are predictable, and our exams are also boringly predictable. Our students love it. Our exams have not changed in years. Yes, exams, because we do not believe in any other form of assessing our students. Continuous assessment is anathema to us. And our students pretty much know the questions that will appear in our end of year exams – last year it was this question from this paragraph in the lecture notes, the year before it was this other question, and the year before that it was this other question, so this year it is definitely going to be this question. If you are not in the know, and you look at the exam, it may look as if only the Einsteins and Brunels of this world can crack it.  But guess what, by the time the students come to the exam, they will have practised similar examples over and over again – for them it is a matter of recall, and nothing more. And they go on to get first class and upper second class degrees in Engineering, but they are definitely short of the preparation they need to be effective in industry.

Employers have no choice but to hire our not-fit-for-purpose graduate engineers. They are the only offering on the plate, and there is nowhere else to turn to.  They are the product of a well-honed, boringly predictable, first class engineering education, but they are barely of any use to the engineering world of today. We, the engineering academics know it; the students know it, the government knows it, parents know it, and the employers know it. That’s how things  are, but for how long?

Today’s complex world is crying out for nimble-minded graduate engineers whose education has given them the ability to critically analyse, assess and offer viable technological solutions to the myriads of engineering problems that routinely crop up every day. Instead, our graduates, bred on traditional engineering education, are hopelessly incompetent. In all their university lives, they have never had to face the challenging, unpredictable, academic problem sets meant to prepare them for the bold world of 21st century engineering. Suddenly, faced with the reality of modern day engineering, their first class and upper second-class degrees lose their shine. Even the illustrious names of the universities that offered them these degrees suddenly look very unimpressive.

The world has to move on, and even now, employers are beginning to look elsewhere for the talent that they need. That talent might not come from an acclaimed engineering school, or from a world-class university, but it will be the talent needed for the engineering world of today. Engineering education has to change; otherwise, our current engineering schools are doomed.

The retail world has been here before us. Century-old retail giants have been collapsing left, right and centre, whilst newer, more technologically attuned retail enterprises take over. If the engineering school of today does not adapt to the changing winds, then a new breed of engineering school will take over, and we and our students will soon go the way of the dinosaurs, only at a much faster pace.

Inaugurating a pioneer in engineering education research, Dr. Bill Williams

Professor Bill Williams and Professor John Heywood are, undoubtedly, two of the finest engineering educators that Europe has ever produced.

Ireland by Chance

img_2510 Bill’s workshop on getting published in EER

Thanksgiving Day had a different look and feel this year. Here in Dublin, we welcomed Dr. Bill Williams to give his inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor in DIT’s School of Multidisciplinary Technologies.

Bill is an energetic and knowledgeable colleague, a close friend, and an excellent mentor to me. We have been working together on various projects since the day we first met, at a SEFI conference in 2012. Bill hosted my 2013 visit to five universities in Portugal, and we are currently co-editing a special focus issue of the journal IEEE Transactions on Education, the second special focus issue we’ve organized together. Because Bill has been so helpful in supporting my development over the years, I wanted others at DIT to benefit from his knowledge, experience, and helpful advice as well. He’s got a can-do attitude that is uplifting and infectious. And so…

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Addressing the Engineering Skills Gap: Lessons from the SEFI 2017 Conference Proceedings

(Talk presented at the 6th Annual Symposium of the UK & IE Engineering Education Research Network at the University of Portsmouth, 01-02 Nov, 2018)

Introduction

Since the turn of the century, employers have consistently expressed concern on graduate work-readiness in general, and a perceived lack of engineering and professional skills amongst engineering graduates in particular (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2007, Wakeham, 2016). This is despite efforts by engineering education providers to address these concerns. This study is an attempt to shed light on how individual engineering educators and institutions are addressing the perceived lack of engineering and professional skills amongst their students. It is hoped that findings from this study will stimulate sharing of best practice and hopefully foster sector-wide collaborative approaches to dealing with the problem.

For the purposes of this study, I used content analysis (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005) to review the contents of the abstracts of all the articles presented on the engineering skills thematic track at the SEFI 2017 conference. The European Society for Engineering Education, SEFI, is a network of engineering educators across Europe, and its annual conference is a key event that is highly regarded within the engineering education sector in Europe and beyond (European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI), 2017b). Given the profile of SEFI within Europe and beyond, the deliberations at SEFI conference can give an indication of the current state of engineering skills provision within European engineering education.

Purpose of this study

The purpose of this study was to achieve four objectives. First, I sought to identify the key engineering skills that are currently the focus of attention within the engineering education sector. Second, I wished to identify at which level of the engineering education curriculum that these engineering skills are being considered. Specifically, I wished to identify whether the focus of the authors was at pre-university level, undergraduate, masters, PhD or early career graduate level.

Third, I wished to establish the unit of strategic focus of engineering skills provision, specifically, whether it is at module level, programme level, departmental or institutional level. Given the hierarchical ordering of education provision within engineering, a preponderance of provision at module level would indicate that the primary driver for engineering skills provision is mainly the individual academic, whilst a preponderance of provision at programme level or higher would indicate a more strategic departmental and/or institutional approach towards the provision of engineering skills.

Finally, I wished to identify current and emerging trends in the provision of engineering skills within the engineering education curriculum. Given the continued perceived gap between the engineering skills expected of graduates by employers, and the actual skills that graduates actually bring with them into industry, this study will be of interest to a number of stakeholders in engineering education. These stakeholders include policy makers in government and industry, employers, providers of engineering education, individual academics and students.

Method

Content analysis can be defined as “a research method for the subjective interpretation of the content of text data through the systematic classification process of coding and identifying themes or patterns” (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005, p.1278). In this analysis, I focussed on three items, namely the type of engineering skill(s) described in the article, the educational level where the skill is delivered, and third, the strategic level of focus, be it module, programme, departmental or institutional level. Using these categories, I reviewed all the abstracts of the 36 articles presented at the SEFI 2017 conference and published in the conference’s proceedings (European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI), 2017a) .

With regard to the type of engineering skills, I used an inductive process whereby I extracted and categorised the skill types as I went through the abstracts. As a result, I came up with a list of  ten categories which, amongst others, included communication skills, leadership and teamworking, employability/engineering and professional skills, innovation and/or  entrepreneurship, critical thinking, Industry 4.0 skills, problem solving and design skills.

Results and Findings

The 36 articles presented at the SEFI 2017 conference focussed on ten skill categories. Thirty-one of these articles reported on engineering skills education at undergraduate level, whilst three focussed on masters’ level. One other article was directed at improving employability and professional skills for doctoral students, whilst another looked at the acquisition of professional and engineering skills in the workplace by early career engineering graduates.

Six of the 36 articles focussed on the issue of engineering skills within engineering education curriculum in general. Of the remaining thirty articles, fourteen focussed primarily on module-level interventions, whilst nine looked at programme-level implementation of engineering skills education,  and  three focussed on the implementation of engineering skills across the entire engineering education provision of departments, faculties and institutions. The remaining four articles looked at the delivery of engineering skills by means of co-curricular projects.

The main focus of interest of the 36 articles was on employability and professional skills. This was followed closely by innovation and entrepreneurship skills. Together these four categories constituted almost 50% of the articles presented on the engineering skills thematic track at the SEFI 2017 conference. Critical thinking, problem solving, communication, leadership and teamworking skills were also covered extensively at the conference. Together, these skills were covered in 41% of the articles that were presented. In addition, English language competence was also cited as important engineering skill.  Generally, coverage of these skills at the SEFI 2017 conference is consistent with the range of skills that employers perceive to be lacking in recently graduated engineers (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2007, Wakeham, 2016).

The analysis of the SEFI 2017 conference abstracts relating to engineering skills also suggest the emergence of new skills that engineering academics are focussing on. For instance, two articles focus on the development of graduate engineering skills for the emerging 4th industrial revolution, Industry 4.0 (Lasi et al., 2014).  In addition, it appears that academics are beginning to pay attention to the development of appropriate pedagogies for delivering engineering skills within the curriculum (Kersten, 2018), as evidenced by the coverage of the topic by two of the 36 articles in SEFI 2017 conference proceedings.

Conclusion

Findings from this study indicate that whilst academics primarily focus on the delivery of the key skills that have been identified by employers as inadequate in current and past engineering graduates, some are beginning to look at the provision of engineering skills that may be required in future workforces. The study also suggests that curriculum interventions aimed at improving engineering skills are mainly carried out at the level of the module by individual academics. However, as some of the abstract contents suggest, the issue of engineering skills is increasingly being addressed at programme level or departmental and institutional level. This may therefore suggests that academic managers and leaders are increasingly paying attention to the issues pertaining to graduate skills and work-readiness that employers have been raising consistently over the past few years.

References

EUROPEAN SOCIETY FOR ENGINEERING EDUCATION (SEFI). Proceedings of the 45th SEFI Annual Conference 2017. In: ROCHA, J. C. Q. J. B. J., ed. 45th SEFI Annual Conference 2017, 2017a Azores, Portugal. SEFI — Société Européenne pour la Formation des Ingénieurs

EUROPEAN SOCIETY FOR ENGINEERING EDUCATION (SEFI). 2017b. SEFI [Online].  [Accessed 21 September 2018].

HSIEH, H.-F. & SHANNON, S. E. 2005. Three Approaches to Qualitative Content Analysis. 15, 1277-1288.

KERSTEN, S. 2018. Approaches of Engineering Pedagogy to Improve the Quality of Teaching in Engineering Education. In: DRUMMER, J., HAKIMOV, G., JOLDOSHOV, M., KÖHLER, T. & UDARTSEVA, S. (eds.) Vocational Teacher Education in Central Asia: Developing Skills and Facilitating Success. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

LASI, H., FETTKE, P., KEMPER, H.-G., FELD, T., HOFFMANN, M. J. B. & ENGINEERING, I. S. 2014. Industry 4.0. Business & Information Systems Engineering, 6, 239-242.

ROYAL ACADEMY OF ENGINEERING 2007. Educating engineers for the 21st Century. London: Royal Academy of Engineering.

WAKEHAM, W. 2016. Wakeham Review of STEM degree provision and graduate employability. London: Great Britain. Department for Business, Innovation & Skills

 

Teaching-only Academics in a Research Intensive University: From an undesirable to a desirable academic identity

Abstract of my Doctor of Education (EdD) dissertation – available at: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/34169

Teaching-only academics now constitute a significant proportion of the academic staff in UK higher education. This thesis is a three-part study in which I sought to contribute to a more indepth understanding of the teaching-only academic role. I did this through an investigation of the career trajectories, perceptions, work-related experiences and academic identity constructions of teaching-only academics working in a research-intensive institution in the UK.

In the first part of the study I carried out a systematic review of the literature on teaching-only academics in the UK, Australia and Canada. In the second part of the study I investigated the virtual identity of teaching-only academics at the UK research-intensive institution. I did this by undertaking an analysis of how these teaching-only academics self-represented and projected themselves on their institutional webpages. In the third part of the study I carried out a life-history analysis of senior teaching-only academics in the engineering faculty of the case study institution.

A principal finding from this thesis, which is collaborated across all the three parts of the study, is that the teaching-only academic role is a non-homogeneous role comprising individuals who come from different backgrounds, have followed different career trajectories into the role, and have different academic identities. Findings from this thesis also suggest that whilst teaching-only academics were introduced as an institutional response to the demands of the RAE/REF, the very act of creating the role has further exacerbated the separation between research and teaching, and between undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. Specifically, undergraduate teaching within the case study engineering department now tends to be the responsibility of teaching-only academics, with research-and-teaching academics increasingly focussing on research and postgraduate teaching. This separation has implications for research-led teaching, particularly in research-intensive institutions.

The thesis also reveals that despite the pre-eminence of research, teaching remains important within the university, and individuals on the teaching-only academic role are able to accumulate substantial, and valued, teaching-related academic capital. This capital, in turn, is enabling them to secure and advance their positions within the same institution, and to pursue career advancement through seeking employment in other higher education institutions.

The new A Level Mathematics Qualifications and their implications on Engineering Education

In every day conversations, the UK weather is by far the safest bet for non-controversial small-talk. This is because the variability and relative unpredictability of UK weather easily ensures that you can find loads of points of agreement with your fellow conversationalist. Within engineering education we also have another favourite topic for small talk – this is the A Level mathematics qualifications. This is because, until recently, it was relatively easy to find something within the A Level mathematics qualifications that any two members of the engineering academic community could agree to mourn about. This is all about to change, however. A Level mathematics has recently undergone a complete transformation, and the refurbished qualifications are already being delivered in schools, with the first batch of A level graduates expected to start their university studies in September 2019.

Why the A Level mathematics qualifications had to be redesigned

Over the past thirty years or so, there have been wide ranging complaints about the quality and perceived shortcomings of A level mathematics. Michael Gove, the then Secretary for Education, adequately summarised these shortcomings in a letter that he wrote to the Chief Executive Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation [DfE, 2013]:

  • A level mathematics fails to provide the solid foundation that students need to prepare them for degree-level study and for vocational education
  • A level mathematics students lack the deep understanding and/or the necessary skills to make connections between mathematics topics, and between mathematics and other subjects
  • Assessment practice in A level mathematics is overly structured and encourages a formulaic approach to mathematical thinking instead of using more open-ended questions that require advanced problem-solving.
  • Universities have had to adapt their teaching approaches to include remedial mathematics tuition for underprepared first year undergraduates.

A survey of mathematics departments within universities also revealed the following shortcomings [ALCAB, 2014]:

  • The mathematical thinking of the most able students is not developed.
  • The distinction between A and A* grades, i.e. the top most grades, seems to be based on the avoidance of careless slips rather than genuine mathematical ability.
  • It is not clear what applied mathematics students have learnt.
  • Current statistics provision tends to focus on routine calculations at the expense of interpretation and understanding.

Purpose of the new A Level Mathematics

According to the Department for Education, the primary purpose of the new A level mathematics qualifications is to [DfE, 2016]:

  • Build from GCSE level mathematics and introduce calculus and its applications
  • Emphasise how mathematical ideas are interconnected and how mathematics can be applied to model situations mathematically using algebra and other representations
  • Helping students to make sense of data
  • Helping students to understand the physical world and to solve problems in a variety of contexts, including social sciences and business
  • Preparing students for further study and employment in a wide range of disciplines involving the use of mathematics.

Structure of the new A Level Mathematics qualifications

With the exception of further mathematics, all students studying A level mathematics now have to cover statistics and mechanics in addition to pure mathematics [Ofqual, 2016a]. This now provides universities with certainty as to the exact nature and level of mathematics covered by A level mathematics graduates.

In addition, students are now also expected to demonstrate the following overarching knowledge and skills across the entire content detailed in the A Level mathematics specification [DfE, 2016]:

  • Mathematical argument, language and proof
  • Mathematical problem solving
  • Mathematical modelling.

Ofqual has also provided guidance on mathematical problem solving, modelling and the use of large data sets in statistics. This guidance also includes advice on assessing these key aspects, together with example questions [Ofqual, 2016c].

The new A Level Mathematics objectives and assessment format

The new A level mathematics qualifications have been specifically designed to deliver the following objectives [Ofqual, 2015]:

  • Using and applying standard techniques: The new qualifications seek to ensure that learners are able to select and correctly carry out routine procedures, and to accurately recall facts, terminology and definitions.
  • Reasoning, interpreting and communicating mathematically: Learners should be able to construct rigorous mathematical arguments (including proofs), make deductions and inferences, assess the validity of mathematical arguments, explain their reasoning and use mathematical language correctly.
  • Solving problems within mathematics and in other contexts: Learners should be able to translate problems in mathematical and non-mathematical contexts into mathematical processes, interpret solutions in the context of a problem, and, where appropriate, evaluate their accuracy and limitations. Learners should also be able to translate situations in context into mathematical models. They should also be able to use mathematical models, evaluate the outcomes of modelling in context, recognise the limitations of models and, where appropriate, explain how to refine them.

Ofqual recommends that these three objectives should be assessed in accordance with the weightings outlined in Table 1 below [Ofqual, 2016b]:

Table 1: Assessment weighting for A and AS level mathematics

Objective Weighting (A Levels) Weighting (AS Levels)
Using and applying standard techniques 50% 60%
Reasoning, interpreting and communicating mathematically 25% 20%
Solving problems within mathematics and in other contexts 25% 20%

The new A Level Mathematics qualifications compared to First Year Engineering Mathematics

The new A Level mathematics qualifications are closely aligned to engineering mathematics as taught in the first and second year of university. For example, the objectives of the new qualifications closely agree with the intended learning outcomes of our first year mathematical modelling and analysis course module for engineering at University College London, whereby we state that by the end of the course module, students will be able to:

  • Recognise the connections between mathematics and engineering, and how mathematical ideas are embedded in engineering contexts;
  • Represent real-world systems from engineering in a mathematical framework;
  • Identify and draw upon a range of mathematical concepts, including Calculus, Linear Algebra and Differential Equations to analyse specific problems and identify the appropriate mathematics to realise a solution;
  • Employ appropriate computer programming and modelling techniques and statistical analysis to efficiently solve and evaluate the performance of engineering systems;
  • Use estimation, approximation and dimensional analysis to reduce complexity;
  • Relate the behaviour of the output of mathematical models to the underlying physical or conceptual models of interest;
  • Carry our engineering problem solving both collaboratively in a team and independently;
  • Present and interpret mathematical results in effective and appropriate ways to varied audiences, including non-mathematical engineering audiences.

Given such close alignment, we expect that from September 2019 onwards it will be much easier for first year students to adapt to university-level teaching. This is likely to reduce the time and effort spent by academic staff in remedial mathematics teaching. Instead, we hope that academics responsible for first and second year engineering mathematics teaching will use that time to focus on bringing engineering mathematics into closer alignment with other course modules in engineering.

References:

DfE (2013). Reform of GCE A Levels – Letter from Secretary of State to Glenys Stacey. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/278146/SoS_January_2013_ofqual_letter_alevels_v2.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

ALCAB (2014). Report of the ALCAB panel on mathematics and further mathematics. The A Level Content Advisory Board. https://alevelcontent.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/alcab-report-on-mathematics-and-further-mathematics-july-2014.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

DfE (2016). Content for mathematics AS and A level for teaching from 2017. Department for Education. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/516949/GCE_AS_and_A_level_subject_content_for_mathematics_with_appendices.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

Ofqual [2015]. AS and A Level Mathematics and Further Mathematics: Consultation on Conditions and Guidance. Ofqual. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/481981/as-and-a-level-mathematics-and-further-mathematics-consultation-on-conditions-and-guidance.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

Ofqual [2016a]. GCE Subject Level Conditions and Requirements for Mathematics. Ofqual. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/517726/gce-subject-level-conditions-and-requirements-for-mathematics.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

Ofqual [2016b]. GCE Subject Level Guidance for Mathematics. Ofqual. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/514465/gce-subject-level-guidance-for-mathematics.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

Ofqual [2016c]. Report on Mathematical Problem Solving, Modelling and the Use of Large Data Sets in Statistics in AS/A Level Mathematics and Further Mathematics. A Level Mathematics Working Group, Ofqual. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/481857/a-level-mathematics-working-group-report.pdf [accessed 25 August, 2018]

Making the transition to university: Of lectures and empty timetables

The Fallacy of the Empty Timetable

Students progressing from high school to university are often shocked at how empty their timetables are when they first look at them.  A first year engineering timetable typically shows only 20 to 25 hours of lectures, workshops, tutorials, design classes and labs. And even more scary, non-engineering timetables are, by and large, even emptier. These timetabled hours are referred to as contact hours. They are the scheduled hours where a lecturer or tutor actually leads or interacts with you in a study session. Of course, you get to meet with lecturers and tutors significantly more than these timetabled hours suggest, but given the rather hefty fees that students are now paying at university, you may be left wondering: “Am I going to get my money’s worth of education?”

Attending Lectures the Wrong Way

Again, you may never have attended a lecture whilst in high school, and when you first show up at university you may be wondering what it really is, and why it is so much disliked, or feared, by so many students. Hopefully, your personal tutor, or programme director, may have attempted to explain to you during Freshers’ Week what a lecture is? However, whether or not they have done so, your first experience of a lecture is more likely to be one of shock.

The typical first lecture usually goes as follows: You show up to the lecture room, or more correctly, lecture hall, on the first day of teaching. You see a sea of students, may be fifty, one hundred, two hundred,  or even more,  seated in neat rows, all facing towards the front where someone is standing, fiddling with some PowerPoint slides. This is distinctly very different from your high school days when classes used to be no more than twenty or thirty students. The lecture usually starts with some introductory remarks about the material to be covered and why it is important to your studies. Pretty soon, you are flying through chunks of new material as the lecturer races against the clock. You soon realise that at the rate the lecture is going, in just one hour you will have gone through the equivalent of an entire week of high school teaching. The material flies at you fast, and as you are trying to grasp the last sentence, you look up and the lecturer has moved on to the next section. You switch on to the new section, and before you even settle down, the lecturer is off on to another topic. By this time your mind is spinning, and a cloud of self-doubt has enveloped you: “Is this the right course for me?”

Every now and then the lecturer pauses to ask a question, and to your surprise, you see a few hands raised, and someone provides the lecturer with the answer s/he is looking for. An answer? Where the hell did they learn that material, you wonder.  Someone even has the audacity to ask the lecturer a detailed question regarding the flurry of material on the lecturer’s slides. At this point you go into shock-mode – were the A level results a true reflection of your capabilities, you begin to wonder.  Helpfully, you look around you, and you see a sea of bewildered faces, and from the corner of your eyes, you begin to see the rows behind you emptying quietly, and fast. You realise you are not alone.  So this is the lecture, but is it value for money, particularly the hefty fees you are paying for this year, you wonder.

Taking charge of your own Study Timetable

Back in your room, after your first ever lecture, you begin to piece together your first day at university – empty timetable slots and breakneck lectures: this is university. Only then, do you realise, one: that the timetable is not so empty after all – it is a template that you must fill with your own study plans, and two: that the lecture is not meant for the lecturer to teach you, high-school style, whilst you recline in your seat – it is a tried-and-tested signposting method to enable you to direct your own studies of the topic. This is where university differs from high school. In high school, the teacher pretty much goes through all the material that you need to master if you are to pass your exams. All you need to do is to take in the material, and remember to reproduce it in the required form during the exams. At university it is a completely different ball-game – it is you, the student, who has to study the material, it is you, the student, who has to decide whether the lecture material suffices or you need to augment it, it is you the student who has to decide what sort of additional material you need to read in order to fully master the topic, and it is your responsibility to decide how much time and how much effort you ought to put into your studies. How then can you master lectures? Simple, like any established human activity, the lecture consists of three connected phases, namely the Before-, During- and After-Lecture phases.

The Before-Lecture phase

Before you even set foot in the lecture hall, you ought to prepare for it. As a general rule, lecture materials are posted on the virtual learning environment (VLE) well before the lectures. In addition, most lecturers even provide quizzes and guides to help you in your preparation. I would suggest that you put in 1 ½ hours of preparation for each hour of the lecture. First, scheme through the lecture material for the first half hour, then try to read and understand the concepts in the next hour, noting down areas that appear to be confusing, and identifying any background material that you need to be conversant with if you are to understand the question. Engineering lecture materials almost always have worked examples that illustrate key concepts:  go through these examples, and, again, note areas of concern. Work through any of the pre-lecture supplementary material supplied by the lecturer, and then at the end of the Before-Lecture phase, prepare a tentative list of questions that you wish the lecturer to clarify during the actual lecture.

The During-Lecture phase

During the lecture, pay attention to what the lecturer is saying. Usually the slides are just pointers to additional material, and the lecturer usually adds in more detail to explain and clarify issues. Importantly, the lecturer usually attempts to link the lecture material to the pre-lecture supplementary material. Usually you may be given opportunities to try out further examples in class, or to go over the examples in the pre-lecture material. Attempt these using the lecture material, and compare your answers with the suggested solution. If you have fully prepared during the Before-Lecture phase, working through the given examples should be relatively easy. As in all learning processes, there may be concepts that remain difficult to understand. Do not be afraid to raise your hands and ask questions, and make note of all the answers. During this time those students who are yet to grasp the wisdom of pre-lecture preparation may be looking at you incredulously. Just ignore them. It’s not about them, it’s about you and your learning.

The After-Lecture phase

After the lecture, allocate a further two to three hours to go over the lecture material. This is the After-Lecture phase, and, in general, you may not complete this phase in one block. Go carefully through the lecture, and through the notes that you made before and during the lecture, creating a fresh set of notes as you go along. Nowadays, universities routinely record lectures. Go through the lecture recording to review any areas that were unclear in the lecture. It can be very tempting to skip lectures and rely on the lecture recordings alone. However, if you have ever attempted to go through a two-hour lecture recording in its entirety, you will immediately see the futility of trying to do so. As a guideline, always remember that lecture recording should only be used as a supporting resource to the actual lecture.

It’s impossible to master all the material in one go, unless you are an exceptional genius. Typically you need to go over the material several times, and to work through a lot of examples to ensure that you fully master the topic. Set aside time to go over the material in the coming days and weeks, and meet up with other students to discuss the material. Often you may find that one of your colleagues is able to explain some of the concepts that you are struggling with in a much clearer way than the lecturer.  Learning is a collaborative process, and you learn better by inter-working with other students. Learning at university is not for the one-man or one-woman hero. It is a collective effort that takes place within a community of learners.

Integrating Lectures, Worksheets and Workshops

Most of the material covered in engineering lectures often needs to be applied to practical engineering problem-solving. Gone are the days of learning theory for the sake of theory. Usually each lecture is accompanied by a worksheet which starts off with introductory questions aimed at assessing and helping you to reinforce your understanding of the key lecture concepts. These are then usually followed by progressively more challenging and more authentic engineering-oriented problems.

Usually each lecture is accompanied by a workshop session a few days after the lecture. The aim of this workshop is to assist you in applying the lecture material to problem-solving. Usually the workshop is based around the lecture worksheet.  You typically work consecutively through the worksheet problems, with the lecturer and/or workshop tutors moving around to see how well you are doing. As with the lecture, it helps to prepare for the workshop by going through some of the problems. If you have done so, bring these solutions to the workshop sessions. Discuss problem areas with the workshop tutors as they move around the class room. Usually you are expected to work collaboratively with other students to solve the problems. Make an effort to contribute and share your learning with others. As so often said, the best way to learn a new topic is to teach others. By so doing, you will be able to reinforce your understanding.

At the end of the workshop, go back and update your notes, paying particular attention to the various approaches that you have learnt to solve the worksheet problems. As before, in your timetable, in the following weeks set aside some time to go over the material as well as to attempt any of the problems that you did not find time to do during the workshop session. Additionally, look up the coursework accompanying the material and start thinking about it.

Conclusion

So, in conclusion, if the university timetable still looks so empty, and the lectures still appear to be such a waste of time, then you must be doing something wrong, or you are too good for the course. Either way, you need to speak to your personal tutor or programme director urgently. After all, university does not come cheap.

New approaches to engineering education: Five memorable quotes

  1. It might be helpful to clarify what engineering education is not. It is not about the acquisition of specific practical skills, however useful or interesting they might be to any individual. It is not about training people to run CFD codes or send CAD designs to a CNC machine or to grow crystals or to sign off structural steelwork. It is about the conceptual, planning and design skills which should precede all these activities. It is about imagining and understanding and predicting, as quantitatively as possible, why and how an engineering objective can be realised and delivered. (Goodhew 2014)

Professor Peter J Goodhew CBE FREng, Emeritus Professor of Engineering, formerly Dean of Engineering and Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Liverpool

  1. Engineering education is no longer solely about specific content anymore or, indeed, traditional knowledge. It’s much more about processes and the students’ application of the knowledge. (AECOM 2018)

Emanuela Tilley, Director of the Integrated Engineering Programme, University College London

  1. We need to train a new generation of engineers in skills that are genuinely relevant to the new industrial values of flexibility, technical advancement and on-going innovation. Single discipline specialism and theory will no longer cut it in the modern world.  (The Institution of Engineering and Technology and The Engineering Professors’ Council 2017)

Professor Jeremy Watson CBE FREng, past President of the Institution of Engineering Technology

  1. The stars are aligned for an Engineering Renaissance here in the UK and throughout the world. We as educators need to seize this moment to work collaboratively with students and employers to co-create a whole new set of models to reflect their needs. In doing so, we can turn a fear of change and flux created by technology and disruption, into a new era of enlightenment for engineering education. (Koziński and Evans 2017)

Professor Janusz Kozinski, Founding President & Vice-Chancellor of the Hereford University of Technology and Engineering, formerly Founding Dean of York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering

  1. Successful engineering education change is characterised by (1) a leadership style that articulates a clear educational vision and demonstrates a personal commitment to establishing a new paradigm for engineering education at the institution; (2) a distinctive ‘spirit’ or culture of collegiality and common purpose that pervades the faculty, (3) student engagement in and understanding of new educational approaches, (4) in-house development of new tools and resources to support and advance the educational approach. (Graham 2018)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

References

AECOM. (2018). The future of infrastructure: Expert opinions from around the world on the challenges and opportunities ahead. AECOM.

Goodhew, P. J. (2014). Teaching Engineering: All you need to know about engineering education but were afraid to ask, London: Royal Academy of Engineering.

Graham, R. (2018). The global state of the art in engineering education. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.

Koziński, J. A., and Evans, E. F. (2017). “An Engineering Renaissance”, New Approaches to Engineering in Higher Education. London: The Institution of Engineering and Technology, The Engineering Professors’ Council.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology, and The Engineering Professors’ Council. “New Approaches to Engineering in Higher Education.” Presented at New Approaches to Engineering in Higher Education, London.