Today’s Way of Learning is Different
Digital-age students require us to embrace new teaching techniques and tools.
Opinion by Michael Bruno
I recently hosted a group of undergraduate engineering students for an informal discussion of their experience to date and was struck by a comment from a second-year student. “You know, students my age learn things in very different ways than the students from years ago,” she said, “so why are you still teaching courses in the same old-fashioned way?”
My initial reaction was to point out the innovations we have made, including our eight-semester Design Spine, 15 years old but constantly refreshed with new projects. “Yes,” she responded, “that is cool, I learn a lot, and it is fun and interesting. But then it all stops when I get to my other courses and the professor just lectures.”
Chastened, I resolved to listen more carefully. The undergraduates and I spoke about the New Learners, recently enrolled young people who have no memory of life without a computer and the Internet, who view YouTube (and Wikipedia) as every bit a research tool as the library, and who – contrary to the stereotype of loners staring at video games in their dorm rooms – are much more collaborative and aware of their role in a global economy than their predecessors. They have grown up with complex and powerful digital technology and so take it for granted.
How do we capitalize on and leverage these attributes to maximize learning? Certainly, as a community we continue to examine the complex individual and institutional factors that influence STEM and, in particular, engineering student success and retention. Studies like ASEE’s Going the Distance have pointed to a wide range of influences, including student background and preparation, as well as university characteristics that contribute to retention. But have we really tried to understand how our students learn and use that knowledge to design more effective and efficient educational vehicles?
Many will point to such evidence as online courses and supplementing in-class instruction with Internet-based lessons, videos, and interactive exercises. As these instructional systems become more responsive to the individual learner, they will play a significant role in achieving better understanding. In fact, at Stevens, we’ve seen dramatic improvement in calculus learning (and first-year retention) by using computer-based exercises that can assess the level of understanding of fundamental concepts and redirect the student to further learning before passing a series of “gates.”
But unless we capitalize more fully on their learning attributes, New Learners may gravitate to other disciplines, including student-tailored programs more responsive to their needs, aspirations, and sensibilities. Project-based learning, including undergraduate research, is clearly an effective educational vehicle that most engineering programs have adopted – many on a large scale. We have found that student design competitions can enhance the experience and build social and organizational skills that are key contributors to future success. We need more of these competitions and should work together to organize and fund them, perhaps along the lines of our athletic conference organizations.
Assessing teamwork remains a continuing challenge. Our experience in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition confirms the learning value and impact of such competitions to each student, as well as to the campus community. But it also has sharpened our focus on the need to carefully design the student experience and assessment protocols to maximize learning outcomes. In particular, we see a need to conduct assessment in a way that is more relevant to the students’ career aspirations and can serve as a real-time indicator of progress toward that career. As a SCUBA instructor, I am required to assess each student’s mastery of a critical skill (such as clearing a mask of water) before allowing him or her to attempt a more difficult maneuver. Can we – perhaps via projects and competitions – develop skills-based assessment processes? Can we more fully engage with industry and government sponsors to ensure the relevance of the skill sets developed? More radically, as technology enables personalized learning environments and individual assessment, can we remake the engineering curriculum to provide more flexible, modular paths to attaining the desired knowledge and competencies?
If we are successful, I am certain that our New Learners will gain confidence and inspiration as their skill sets improve and expand. So will faculty, as our teaching methods and expectations change with the digital times.
Michael Bruno is Feiler Chair Professor and dean of the School of Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.