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Congratulations to Warren Rieutort-Louis one of our third year students for winning the Engineering Subject Centre Student Award 2008 for his essay ‘What makes a good lecturer?’, in which he has analysed the great teaching he has experienced as an undergraduate here at the Department.
Warren will receive £250 and his essay will be pitted against winning essays from other subject centres to win a Toshiba laptop. The overall winner of the Higher Education Academy Student Network Award will be announced at the Higher Education Academy Annual Conference in July.
You can find out more about the awards at the Engineering Subject Centre website and read Warren's essay below.
Engineering is by its very nature a technical subject, where it is often all too easy for lecturers to succumb to the classic here-are-my-notes-which-are-a-carbon-copy-of-this-textbook approach to teaching. After all, how many ways can there possibly be of teaching Fourier transforms? And how many times have we students heard “Unfortunately this is quite a boring part of the course, but it really is important”, a catch phrase commonly identified by generations of young engineers as the beginning of... an extremely tedious and dull hour...
Nonetheless, it must be said that it is in no way true that ‘good’ engineering lecturers have become as rare as the Mauritian dodo bird, and I’m fortunate to say that in my experience I have met several inspiring instructors; their influence on our vision of engineering is incalculable.
Good lecturers trigger enthusiasm and are often passionate themselves about their subject, even if that subject happens to be the design of operational amplifiers. Motivating 300 students at 9 o’clock on a wet Monday morning is indeed no easy task, and of course people learn differently, so what general methods catch students’ attention?
Indubitably, humour is an important factor in grabbing student’s interest, but I would say that a good lecturer goes beyond that stage. They are the ones that realise the power of visual demonstrations that are so frequently overlooked. A materials lecturer that demonstrates crack propagation with plasticine, a fluids lecturer that demonstrates a wind tunnel, a control systems lecturer that demonstrates proportional control with Lego®: those are some experiences that made my lectures entertaining, and memorable.
Not used enough, I believe, is the power of graphic imagery. We are lucky in that engineering is a very visual subject. Pictures and even short videos illustrating real-life applications and perspectives are always welcome. Not just once at the start of the course, but throughout all lectures! Lecturers are often engaged in fascinating research, which can form the basis of interesting examples. Some go to great lengths to prepare learning tools that complement teaching, like short software simulations or MATLAB® demos, demonstrating for example the closed-loop flight behaviour of a jet fighter. Some lecturers even set up online workspaces for their courses, and use Tablet PC technology allowing them to record and broadcast online additional worked examples, fully narrated by the lecturer. These tremendous resources really make a difference, and it’s even better when lecturers make these available for students outside lectures.
Equally engaging are lecturers that discuss real-world case studies such as the collapse of a particular structure, the design of a working radio, the selection of materials for a 400 tonne aircraft. One I found particularly stunning was when a lecturer described the structural failure of a pipe in a cyclohexane plant, and demonstrated that any first year engineer could have spotted the initial pipe’s design flaw. What is that famous saying, again? A case study is worth a thousand words?
Exceptional educators implement a variety of these techniques in their lectures. Good lecturers are also the most approachable and understand the learning perspective of students. They are the ones that generously give of their time after lectures to answer the questions of the hoards of students who have no idea where equation 5 on page 6 of the notes came from, or of that odd student in the back row that thinks he has invented a perpetual motion machine. Open-minded lecturers contribute so much to our learning experience and gain remarkable respect with students.
Realistically speaking though, many of the comments I have discussed seem to require a great deal of commitment on behalf of the lecturer and infinite teaching time given that of course, the hard maths has to be done at some point... But, surprisingly perhaps, I firmly believe that it’s not only up to the lecturer. It’s all too easy for us students to take for granted what we have and always ask for more demos, more videos, more recorded lecture podcasts, more filled in notes, more worked examples. It surprised me last year to find out that many lecturers get very little feedback on their courses, and in particular get hardly any expressions of gratitude from students on extras they may have put in place to try and make, say, thermodynamics more appealing. So why bother? It’s a great shame. We as students must also take the effort to ‘give something back’ so to speak, even if it is just an expression of thanks or for example sharing ideas and resources that we encounter in our private study. In my first year, I set up a website uploading interesting links that I found relevant and helped me understand the course material better. Some lecturers now link to this site. Education is a sharing process, and motivated lecturers are good lecturers.
Interestingly from another perspective, many lecturers underestimate both their students’ eagerness to learn about their subject and more importantly don’t realise their own abilities to be a ‘good’ lecturer. Some of the best lecturers I have had are not stand-up comedians, intent on making semiconductor engineering hilarious, but on the contrary they are people that give students a chance to develop and learn by guiding them in the right directions, adding links to interesting web-pages in handouts, posing interesting challenges in lectures. One of my lecturers encourages creative thinking and independent learning by handing out chocolate bars to students who find and email him interesting applications/articles/anecdotes that relate to the electromagnetics course, which he can then show other students and use to improve his lectures. Once again, a process of sharing.
Noteworthy of a mention is also the style of teaching of good lecturers. I have known good lecturers that write on blackboards, and good lecturers that use PowerPoint. Then again, I’ve also known lecturers that doodle unintelligibly on blackboards and others that face and read PowerPoints like a recipe book. Using a variety of these teaching tools is undoubtedly best; change and diversity maintain interest.
Good lecturers have such an impact on our studies, just like good teachers at school. My experience has led me to meet many such people that have irrevocably shaped the understanding of hundreds of students, through enthusiasm, through drive, through passion. They may not all have a “Professor ABC appreciation society” on Facebook, but they will certainly have admiration and respect. As an electrical engineer, I may never in my life use the mechanical engineering knowledge I gained in my first years, but I will certainly remember that November day when the mechanics and structures lecturers played swing ball in class to illustrate moment of momentum.
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