Doing is Believing – Carsen Banister

Kolb's Cycle of Experiential LearningTraditional lectures often consist of an instructor showing students a theory or skill. This habit is a relic of old times, originating in an era void of printing presses. Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, revolutionizing the distribution of information. Since students no longer have to write their own copy of a textbook through dictation, instructors should not merely be providing students with information. Instructors should instead focus on engaging students and involving them in their lessons.

Participatory and experiential learning have been used for quite some time, and many instructors use these teaching methods in their courses. The focus shifts away from the instructor and towards the learners, creating an environment which emphasizes the acquisition of skills and knowledge. In courses centered on problem solving, it is quite practical to allow students to work with their peers and receive guidance from the instructor. This is the shift that I have been making in courses that I serve as a Teaching Assistant (TA).

Over the past few years, Prof. Michael Collins, myself, and other TAs have restructured Tutorials in an Engineering Thermodynamics course by adding interactivity and peer-guided instruction. Rather than solving example problems for the students, the TA guides students through a problem, allowing them time to work independently or with their peers. Solution methods are discussed at various points during the process, with input provided by students. The instructor is able to add details or reinforce key ideas along the way.

It is true that moving away from ‘traditional’ Lectures and Tutorials requires careful planning and does consume more class time. Rather than bombarding students with 2 or 3 examples during a Tutorial, only 1 or 2 examples are presented for experiential learning in the example course discussed above. The remaining examples are offered as a take-home assignment, where students can practice the material in a more independent environment. To supplement the interactivity further, many in-class demonstrations are used in the Tutorials to reinforce key concepts.

In engineering, the focus is often on teaching problem solving strategy. This can lead to students memorizing solution techniques without understanding the key underlying theories and concepts. A teaching methodology that focuses attention on the important theories and concepts and allowing students to develop their own problem solving strategies has the potential to instill a higher level of education.

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Carsen Banister, B.A.Sc. Ph.D. Candidate, Mechanical Engineering Graduate Instructional Developer, Centre for Teaching Excellence University of Waterloo