Teaching Technical Theory

Chapter 38 - Educational Concepts and Models for the Field of Instrumentation - Advice for Teachers

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Learning is not merely a process of information transfer. It is first and foremost a transformation of one’s thinking. When we learn something substantial, it alters the way we perceive and interact with the world around us. Learning any subject also involves a substantial accumulation of facts in one’s memory, but memorization alone is not really learning (at least it isn’t learning at the college level). Transmitting facts into a student’s memory is easy, and does not require a live human presenter. A well-written book or a well-edited video can do a far better and far more consistent job of conveying facts and concepts than any live presentation1112. A more appropriate role for any human teacher, therefore, is to foster higher-order thinking skills such as problem-solving, logical reasoning, diagnostic techniques, and metacognition (critiquing one’s own thinking).

Rather than devote most of your classroom time to lecture-style presentations – where the flow of information goes primarily from you to your students – place the responsibility for fact-gathering on your students. Have them read books such as this1113 and arrive at the classroom prepared to discuss what they have already studied.

When students are with you in the classroom and in the lab, probe their understanding with questions – lots of questions. Give them realistic problems to solve. Challenge them with projects requiring creative thought. Get your students to reveal how they think, both to you and to their peers. This will transform your classroom atmosphere from a monologue into a dialogue, where you engage with the minds of your students as partners in the learning process instead of lecturing to them as subordinates.

A format I have used with great success is to assign homework exploring new topics, so students much research those topics in advance of our coverage of it in class. The pedagogical term for this is an inverted classroom, where communication of facts occurs outside of class, and higher-order activities such as problem-solving occur inside the classroom. This stands in contrast to traditional learning structures, where the instructor spends most of the class time transmitting facts and working example problems, while subsequent homework questions (ostensibly completed on the students’ own time) stimulate the development of problem-solving skills.

Homework in my “inverted” classroom comes in the form of question sets designed to lead the student on a path to acquiring the necessary facts and exposing them to certain problem-solving techniques. Some of these questions point students directly to specific texts to read, while others allow students to choose their own research material. Many of the questions are simply conceptual or quantitative problems to solve, without reference to source materials. When my students arrive for class, they first take a quiz on the material they should have studied for that day. After the quiz, students working alone or in small groups solving the assigned problems. My role as instructor is to assist students in their problem-solving efforts, observing the students’ attempts, offering advice, and helping to identify and correct misconceptions. Students are much more engaged, less distracted, and comfortable raising questions while working together in these groups than they ever are as one large group.

Students are considered finished with the class session (and free to leave) when they are able to successfully demonstrate to me their grasp of the day’s material. This happens in the form of a “summary quiz” which may be done one-on-one (my preference) or as a whole class. If done individually, the summary quizzes must be varied enough so I am adequately challenging each student even though they have overheard classmates answering similar summary quiz questions.

An inverted classroom structure shifts the burden of transmitting facts and concepts from a live teacher to static sources such as textbooks1114. This shift in responsibility frees valuable class time for more important tasks, namely the refinement of higher-order thinking skills. It makes no sense to have a subject-matter expert (the instructor) spend most or all of the students’ valuable time at school doing what a book or a video could do just as well1115. It is far better to apply that same subject-matter expertise to challenges no book or video can meet: actively identifying student misconceptions, dispensing targeted advice for overcoming difficulties, and stimulating students’ minds with follow-up questions designed to illuminate concepts in further detail.

Several important advantages are realized by managing a classroom in this way. First, the instructor enjoys a privileged view of each students’ comprehension, struggles, and misconceptions. If you are accustomed to teaching in a lecture or other “stand-up-in-front” classroom format, you will be utterly amazed to see what your students do and do not comprehend when you watch them dialogue and problem-solve in small groups. Much of what goes on inside your students’ minds is hidden from you when they are seated in neat rows watching you in the front of the classroom. When students are free to work together in more intimate settings, you get to see how they think, what they understand, and most importantly what they mis-understand.

Another important advantage of an inverted classroom is how it maximizes your contact with those students who need it most. Faster students are able to finish their work quickly and leave (or stay in the class to tutor their peers), while the slower students stay to the very end with you until their work is done at their pace. When conversing with small groups (3 to 4 students) in the classroom, I spend an average of only 5 to 6 minutes per student to query them on their understanding of the day’s material and to challenge them with at least one problem to solve. The time saved is incredibly useful, as it allows you to re-structure the topic coverage to include more review, cover additional material, or devote more time to hands-on labwork and projects.

Perhaps the most important benefit of an inverted classroom is that students learn how to independently research, which is no small feat. In a complex field where technology advances on a daily basis, your students will need to be able to learn new facts on their own (without your assistance!) after they graduate. Employers have consistently advised me that this is the single most important skill any person can learn in school: how to independently acquire new knowledge and new abilities. Such a skill not only prepares them for excellence in their chosen career, but it also brings great benefit to every other area of life where the acquisition of new information is essential to decision-making (e.g. participation in the democratic process, legal proceedings, medical decision-making, investing, parenting, etc.). In this way, the inverted classroom is not just a “better mousetrap” but in fact is really catching a “better mouse.”

The problem with lecture

I speak negatively of lecture as a teaching tool because I have suffered its ineffectiveness from a teacher’s perspective for several years. The problem is not that students cannot learn from an instructor’s eloquent presentation; it’s that following the lead of an expert’s presentation obscures students’ perception of their own learning. Stated in simple terms, lecture forces every student into the role of spectator when they should be participants. Students observing a lecture cannot tell with certainty whether they are actually learning from an expert presentation, or whether they are merely being stimulated. This is not an obvious concept to grasp, so allow me to elaborate in more detail.

When I began my professional teaching career, I did what every other teacher I knew did: I lectured daily to my students. My goal was to transfer knowledge into my students’ minds, and so I chose the most direct method I knew for that necessary transference of information.

My first year of teaching, like most teachers’ first year, was a trial by fire. Many days I was lecturing to my students on some subject I had just reviewed (for the first time in a long time) no more than a few days before. My lesson plans were chaotic to non-existent. By my second and third years, however, I had developed lesson plans and was thereby able to orchestrate my lectures much more efficiently. These lesson plans were complete enough to support live demonstrations of concepts during almost every lecture, listing all the materials, components, and equipment I would need to set up in preparation. If an extensive amount of set-up was required for some demonstration, instructions would be found in lesson plan(s) multiple days in advance in order to give me adequate time. The result was a very smooth and polished presentation in nearly every one of my lectures. I was quite proud of the work I had done.

However, I noticed a strange and wholly unintended consequence of all this preparation: with each passing year, my students’ long-term recall of concepts presented in lecture seemed to grow worse. Even my best students, who demonstrated an obvious commitment to their education by their regular study habits, outstanding attendance, and quality work, would shock me by asking me to re-explain basic concepts we had covered in extensive detail months before. They never complained about the lectures being bad – quite to the contrary, their assessment of my lectures was always “excellent” in my performance surveys.

An increasingly common lament of students as they tried to do the homework was “I understand things perfectly when you lecture, but for some reason I just can’t seem to figure it out on my own.” This baffled me, since I had made my presentations as clear as I could, and students seemed engaged and attentive throughout. It was clear to me as I later worked with these students that often they were missing crucial concepts and/or harbored severe misconceptions, and that there was no way things should have made sense to them during lecture given these misconceptions.

Another detail that caught my attention was the fine condition of their textbooks. In fact, their textbooks were looking better and better with each passing year. At the conclusion of my first teaching year, my students textbooks looked as though they had been dragged behind a moving vehicle: pages wrinkled, binding worn, and marks scribbled throughout the pages. As my lectures became more polished, the textbooks appeared less and less used. My reading assignments were no less thorough than before, so why should the books be used less?

One day I overheard a student’s comment that made sense of it all. I was working in my office, and just outside my door were two students conversing who didn’t think I could hear them talking. One of them said to the other, “Isn’t this class the best? The lectures are so good, you don’t even have to read the book!” At the sound of this, my heart sunk. I began to realize what the problem was, what was needed to fix it, and how I had unwittingly created a poor learning environment despite the best of intentions.

The fundamental problem is this: students observing an expert presentation are fooled into thinking the concepts are easier to grasp and the processes easier to execute than they actually are. The mastery and polish of the lecturer actually hinders student learning by veiling the difficulty of the tasks. Matters are no different watching a professional athlete or musician at work: a master makes any task look effortless. It isn’t until you (the spectator) actually try to do the same thing (as a participant) that you realize just how challenging it is, just how much you have to learn, and how much effort you must invest before you achieve a comparable level of proficiency.

When students told me “for some reason” they just couldn’t seem to solve the same problems I did during lecture “even though they understood it perfectly” as I lectured, they were being honest. This was not some excuse made up to cover a lack of effort. From their perspective, they truly believed they grasped the concepts while watching me work through them in front of class, and were genuinely mystified why it was so hard for them to perform the same problem-solving tasks on their own.

The simple fact of the matter was that my students did not actually grasp the concepts as they watched me lecture. If they had, the solution of similar problems after lecture should have presented little trouble for them. Lecture had generated a false sense of understanding in their minds. This made my lectures worse than useless, for not only did they fail to convey the necessary knowledge and skill, but they actually created an illusion of proficiency in the minds of my students powerful enough to convince them they did not need to explore the concepts further (by reading their textbooks). This served to hinder learning rather than foster learning.

What I needed to do was shatter this illusion if my students were to learn from me more effectively, and especially if they were ever to become independent learners. Thus began my own personal quest of educational reform.

A more accurate model of learning

A humbling fact every teacher eventually learns is that the depth of a student’s learning is primarily a function of the student’s effort and not their own. Even the most dedicated and talented instructor cannot make a student learn if that student does not invest the necessary time and effort. Conversely, even an unmotivated or incompetent instructor cannot prevent a self-dedicated student from learning on their own.

However, a great many students enter college with the belief that learning is a passive activity: “It’s the instructor’s job to give us information – all we’re supposed to do is attend and observe.” Unfortunately, this flawed model of learning seems embedded in modern American culture, anchored in students’ minds from years of compulsory lecture-based education. The role of teacher as expert presenter is so relentlessly reinforced that we have difficulty recognizing its flaws, much less conceiving better alternatives. Teachers choosing to depart from this model invite suspicion and even anger from students accustomed to the status quo of lecture.

One way to help see past one’s own biases on a subject is to consider the same (or similar) subject in a different context. Here, the absurdity of passive learning becomes obvious if we simply switch contexts from academic instruction to athletic instruction. It would be laughable if a coach or fitness trainer were the one performing all the weight-lifting, sprints, stretching, and practice movements while the student never did anything but observe. It would be only slightly less humorous if the trainer spent the whole of every session modeling these activities, leaving the student to practice those activities on their own time as “homework.” Instead, effective physical training sessions always place the student in an active role as soon and as often as possible, so that the instructor’s valuable expertise may applied toward identifying errors and recommending corrections. Instructor-led demonstration is minimized in order to maximize time spent with the student practicing their craft.

Academic learning really isn’t much different. If we want students to learn new skills and acquire new mental abilities, students must practice those skills and mental processes, and it is during this practice time that an instructor’s expertise becomes most valuable. Accurate self-perception is another reason to immediately engage students in practicing the skills and processes they seek to learn. When students directly experience just how challenging any concept or task is to master, they immediately recognize how much they have to learn. This self-awareness is a vital first step to learning, proving the need for committed action on their part. Only after this recognition is the student psychologically prepared for the hard work of learning.

This is why I favor the “inverted classroom” approach. Students must engage with the new subject(s) prior to every classroom session. From the very moment they arrive, they recognize the challenges of the subject matter, and where they need help understanding it. With the presentation of facts occurring before class time, the bulk of that time may be spent actually applying the concepts instead of encountering them. The relatively mundane task of fact-gathering is relegated to students’ time outside of class, while the more challenging and meaningful tasks of problem-solving and analysis happen where the instructor can actually observe and coach.

In order for an inverted classroom structure to work, though, each student must have access to the necessary information in static form (e.g. textbooks, videos, etc.), and be held accountable for doing the necessary preparations. Access and accountability are absolutely essential to ensuring an inverted classroom will work. Without the former, students will become frustrated; without the latter, some students won’t engage.

The ultimate goal of education

As I have transitioned from a traditional lecturer to a “reform-minded” educator, my general philosophy of education has shifted. My teaching techniques and classroom organization changes preceded this philosophical shift, to be sure, but more and more I am realizing just how important it is to have an educational philosophy, and how such a philosophy helps to guide future reforms.

When I began teaching, my belief was that teaching was a matter of knowledge and skills transference: it was my job as an educator first and foremost to transfer information into my students’ minds. Now, it is my belief that my primary task is to help my students become autonomous: able to analyze complex data, turn their thoughts into practical action, and continue learning long after they have left my classroom. If all I accomplish is helping my students memorize facts, procedures, and formulae about instrumentation, I have utterly failed them. My real job is to challenge them to become autonomous, critical thinkers and doers, so they will be able to fully take responsibility for their own lives and their own careers.

This shift in philosophy happened as a result of contact with many employers of my students, who told me the most important thing any student could learn in school was how to learn. In life, learning is not an option but a necessity, especially in highly complex fields such as instrumentation and control. Any instrument technician or engineer who stagnates in their learning is destined for obsolescence. Conversely, those with the ability and drive to continually learn new things will find opportunities opening for them all throughout their careers.

A former classmate of mine I studied instrumentation with told me of his path to success in this field. While never the smartest person in class (he struggled mightily with math concepts), he was always very determined and goal-oriented. His first job placed him in the field of automotive research and development, where he was responsible for “instrumenting” heavy trucks with sensors to perform both destructive and non-destructive tests on them. The instrumentation he used at this job was often quite different from the industrial instruments he learned in school, and so he found himself having to constantly refer to textbooks and equipment manuals to learn how the technology worked. This was true even when he was “on the road” doing field-service work. He told me of many evenings spent in some tavern or pub, a beer in one hand and an equipment manual in the other, learning how the equipment was supposed to work so he could fix the customer’s problem the next day.

This hard work and self-directed learning paid off handsomely for my friend, who went on to set up an entire testing department for a major motorcycle manufacturer, and then started his own vehicle testing company (specializing in power-sport vehicles) after that. None of this would have been possible for my friend had he relied exclusively on others to teach him what he needed to know, taking the passive approach to learning so many students do. The lesson is very general and very important: continual learning is a necessary key to success.

One of the corollaries to my philosophy of education is that individual learning styles are ultimately not to be accommodated. This may come as a shock to many educators, who have learned about the various styles of learning (auditory, kinesthetic, visual, etc.) and how the acquisition of new information may be improved by teaching students according to their favored modes. Please understand that I am not denying the fact different people prefer learning in different ways. What I am saying is that we fail to educate our students (i.e. empower them with new abilities) if all we ever do is teach to their preferences, if we never challenge them to do what is novel or uncomfortable.

The well-educated person can learn by listening, learn by watching others, and learn by direct hands-on experimentation. A truly educated person may still retain a preference for one of these modes over the others, but that preference does not constrain that person to learning in only one way. This is our goal as educators: nothing short of expanding each student’s modes of learning.

If a student experiences difficulty learning in a particular way, the instructor needs to engage with that student in whatever mode makes the most sense for them with the goal of strengthening the areas where that student is weak. For example, a student who is weak in reading (visual/verbal) but learns easily in a hands-on (kinesthetic) environment should be shown how to relate what they perceive kinesthetically to the words they read in a book. Spending time with such students examining an instrument to learn how it functions, then reading the service manual or datasheet for that instrument to look for places where it validates the same principles, is one example of how an instructor might help a student build connections between their strong and weak modes of learning. Investigating subjects through multiple approaches such as this also shows students the value of each learning mode: a student might find they easily grasp “how” an instrument works by directly observing and experimenting with it, but that they more readily grasp “why” it was built that way by reading the manufacturer’s “theory of operation” literature.

Keeping the goal of life-long learning in mind, we must ask ourselves the question of how our students will need to learn new things once they are no longer under our tutelage. The obvious answer to this question is that they will need to be able to learn in any mode available to them, if they are to flourish. Life is indifferent to our needs: reality does not adapt itself to favor our strengths or to avoid challenging our weaknesses. Education must therefore focus on the well-rounded development of learning ability.

By far the greatest amount of resistance I encounter from students in terms of learning styles is learning by reading. It is rare to find a student who reads well, for example, but struggles at learning in a hands-on environment (kinesthetic) or struggles to understand spoken information (auditory). The reason for this, I believe, is that reading is a wholly unnatural skill. Entire cultures exist without a written language, but there is not a culture in the world that lacks a spoken one. Interpreting the written word, to the level of proficiency required for technical learning, is a skill born of much practice.

Unfortunately, the popular application of learning styles in modern education provides students with a ready-made, officially-sanctioned excuse for not only their inability (“That’s just not how my brain works”), but also for continued tolerate of that inability (“I shouldn’t have to learn in a way I’m not good at”). The challenge for the instructor is helping students develop their ability to learn in non-favored modes despite this psychological resistance.

My general advice for educators is to never compromise the “big picture” philosophy of empowering your students’ thinking. Some key points I always try to keep in mind are:

  • Lead by example: Regularly showcase for your students your own excitement for the subject and your own continual learning adventures. Likewise, you need to model the same learning modes you ask them to develop: let them see you learn new things, demonstrating how multiple modes are necessary to be an effective self-educator.
  • Teach by asking questions: Socrates had the right idea – if you want to make people examine their assumptions and discover misconceptions, ask lots of challenging questions. This is how I have conditioned myself to respond to student questions: I generally answer with a question of my own seeking the heart of the student’s confusion. Posing “thought experiments” for students to conduct is another form of questioning that not only clarifies concepts, but also builds good critical-thinking habits. Anyone familiar with Socrates’ fate knows, however, that people tend to react defensively when their assumptions are challenged by persistent questions. A helpful hint for avoiding this kind of reaction is to give the student adequate time and personal space to contemplate your questions. If the student ever feels uncomfortable either with your observation of their efforts or the rapidity of your questioning, they will “lock up” and refuse to engage. Sometimes the best way to manage this behavior is to pose a question to the student, then tell them you will get back to them after a few minutes, rather than to watch them struggle answering your question(s).
  • Be willing to provide the help they need: If students struggle at certain tasks or with thinking in certain ways, devote extra time with them to practice these skills. Let them know in very practical ways how you are willing to work just as hard as you are asking them to work. Note that this does not mean giving in to demands for lecture. That would be giving students what they want, rather than what they need. Instead, it means focusing directly on whatever weaknesses are hindering their growth as learners, and aggressively working to strengthen those weaknesses. If it means reserving time to read with students who say they can’t understand the text, then that is your job as their teacher.
  • Nothing builds confidence and dissolves apprehension like success: Remind your students of the challenges they have already overcome, and the progress they have already made.
  • Be patient: That same student who complains now about having to read, to think independently, and tackle challenging problems will come back to thank you years later. Just as you expected them to think long-term while they were in your class, so you need to think long-term with regard to their appreciation for your standards and efforts. Transformative education is a marathon, not a sprint!