|“If you don't let a teacher know at what level you are - by asking
a question, or revealing your ignorance - you will not learn or
grow. You can't pretend for long, for you will eventually be found
out. Admission of ignorance is often the first step in our
education.” - Steven Covey (1990).
In 1987, the Education Commission of the States and the
American Association of Higher Education co-sponsored the work –
“Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education”
(Chickering and Gamson 1987). Supported by extensive research
and experience, this work came up with guidelines for faculty,
students, and administrators for improving undergraduate
teaching and learning.
In the 1990s – Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey
1990) and Emotional Intelligence (Goleman 1995) became best
sellers in the personal growth segment. These books and other
similar ones shifted the prevailing paradigms from efficiency to
effectiveness and from prestige to self-contentment.
This article on the techniques employed by highly effective
educators is a synergy of the above three works, personal
experiences, teaching enhancement seminars, and many
discussions (some passionate) I have had with my engineering
peers from the University of South Florida and other universities
around the nation.
To keep this article readable, I call the effective educator - Efed. I
refer to Efed also as he (the author does recognize that
engineering has a continuing deep-rooted challenge to bring
gender diversity and opportunity to its profession) for the sole
purpose of keeping the article readable.
1. Efed is organized
Before every class, Efed asks himself, “Do I know what topics I will
cover in my class? Do I have an outline? Am I beginning with an
end in my mind? Have I marked my lecture notes so that I do not
fumble around to find them during the class? What problems am I
going to assign for homework? To engage the students, do I
know what questions I am going to ask during class? Do I have
usable dry markers in my pocket or am I going to use the dried-
out ones available in the classroom!”
Efed clearly explains the expectations and the goals of the course,
and their relation to the overall curriculum and education of the
student. Since he has spent time and effort in developing the
course handout, it clearly includes test dates and make-up policy,
grading components and their weightage, teaching assistant
information, generous office hours, objectives and outcomes of the
course, homework assignments, course schedule, and assigned
page numbers from the book. All policies are fair, and there are
no surprises during the semester.
During office hours, Efed can get the opportunity to recognize
different learning styles of the students. Centuries ago, one could
account for every style of learning, as the teacher to student ratio
was 1:1. Nowadays you could be teaching courses with hundreds
of students, but you can still account for different learning styles
during classroom presentation (visually vs. verbally), office hours,
class discussions and activities (inductive vs. deductive modes),
recitation hours with TAs, and more importantly in the grading
policy. If you extend components of grading from only quizzes and
tests to include homework assignments, web-based quizzes,
projects, class presentations and participation, reflective writing,
and attendance, it can encourage and accommodate the students’
natural learning style.
2. Efed understands the importance of first day of class
First impressions last a whole semester, if not more. Often, Efed
sees his peers excusing the first day of class right after taking the
attendance and passing their one-page course handout.
However, for Efed, it is the most crucial day of the semester. After
taking the attendance, he remembers as many names possible
and before giving the handout, asks students, “When you signed
up for this class, what did you expect from this class?” Many will
give him that confused look that says, “We are here, aren’t we.
What more should you expect from the first day of class?” Efed
then asks them, "Do you go to a movie and not know anything
about the movie except its name?"
As the students open up with their thoughts about the course,
Efed clears any rumors heard from former students. He dispels
myths that they may have already developed about the course
and its pre-requisites. He answers statements - “I am never
going to use this course” carefully and passionately, but without
3. Efed uses teaching tools effectively
No matter how many times Efed teaches the same course, he
keeps on improving his teaching methods to make him more
effective. Efed continually learns new ways of teaching via new
textbooks, continuing education classes, education articles, and
new multimedia resources.
Nowadays, there are many tools available to Efed to make
teaching effective. These include multimedia presentation
software, videos, Internet, mathematical packages, and
interactive educational software. He uses these tools only when it
improves the understanding of the course material. He does not
abuse the modern technologies such as Power Point to cover a
huge amount of material, or even worse, show page after page of
the textbook through presentation viewers.
The number of waking hours has not changed for either Efed or
his students. Therefore, he does not supplement but complement
the course with new tools. For example, if Efed assigns projects in
a course, he knows whether the use of tools such as
mathematical packages compensates for the extra effort.
Otherwise, expectations can become unrealistic and turn students
off from learning.
Efed recognizes that old teaching tools are still effective - whether
it is using the chalkboard to derive a formula while punctuating the
derivation effectively with underlying principles from previously
covered content, or it is maintaining eye contact with the
students. A recent speaker at our university said, "In my
Advanced Fluids course, I never saw my instructor for the whole
semester." Shocked by his remark, he quickly added, "He was
always facing the blackboard."
Most students want to relate their classroom experience to the
industrial world. If they do not see the connection, it is hard for
them to be motivated. Efed does not hesitate to call the alumni
and ask them how they have used the course in the workplace.
These queries bring contemporary real-life examples into the
classroom. In many metropolitan universities, students
themselves can be a resource of these real-life examples since
many of them work part-time as an intern or in co-operative
education programs in engineering companies.
4. Efed demonstrates respect for students
Efed believes in his students. He shows respect for students by
treating them as unique individuals but also through his
preparedness for the class. Efed always asks himself how he can
improve the students’ understanding of the concepts.
Efed respects the time of his students by coming to class on time
and by stop lecturing at the scheduled time. Nothing is more
annoying to a student if a teacher habitually comes late to class or
rushes through the material at the end, or uses class time wisely
by telling long war stories. In fact, coming early to class opens
informal discussions with the students. It give students informal
time with Efed to problem solve or schedule time with Efed outside
of office hours. Efed gives full attention to the students who are
facing problems in the course. Although many of the cases are not
emergencies, a few deserve Efed’s full attention. I remember I
had a student who wanted to withdraw from my course in the last
month of the semester. If it had been a few years ago, I may
have answered with a categorical No. But, before jumping to an
unnecessary conclusion, I wanted to know why. I am glad I
asked. I learned that he had cancer, and chemotherapy was
wearing him down. Fortunately, with good treatment, his cancer
went into full remission. In the following semester, he made an A
in the course. This is why Efed gives the benefit of the doubt to
the student. As Efed gains experience, he is able to distinguish
between genuine and exaggerated excuses.
Sometimes the problems of a particular student stretch Efed's time
and are beyond his capability of help. In such cases, Efed does
not hesitate to refer students to services of the career and
counseling centers of the campus.
The contact with students during office hours is very important to
Efed. It is an opportunity for teaching students how to learn on
their own. Rather than just solving the problem they have come
to you with, he guides them to find the solution themselves. Yes,
it takes more time to do so, but Efed is efficient but not at the
expense of being effective. Moreover, if criticism is warranted, it is
gentle and never directed toward the student.
Efed meets students outside the classroom in hallways, during
cookouts, and at professional society meetings. It gives him a
chance to know his students in an informal setting, and make him
more approachable and student friendly. By knowing them as a
whole person, Efed can give better advice on their curriculum and
5. Efed gives rapid feedback
Efed returns graded assignments and tests in the next scheduled
class period. Students can quickly assess their strengths and
weaknesses, and hence make amends to understand future
lectures. Efed uses modern technologies such as web-based
tutorials that give even more immediate feedback to the student.
6. Efed asks questions
On average, an instructor waits ten seconds or less before they
answer their own question. Efed waits a little longer to make the
students uncomfortable enough to ask questions. There is no
better way than this to start a discussion. It is an opportunity to
understand what they are struggling with, and what myths they
may otherwise develop.
Asking a question or being asked one is also a way to
accommodate the different learning styles of students (Prichard
and Sawyer 1994). For example, many students’ questions are
about how to solve a problem. However, most instructors prefer
students who ask a why question as opposed to a how question.
Why? Because the how question is misconstrued as - How can I
do this problem so that I can make a good grade on the test?
However, how and why questions (Finelli, Klinger, Budny, 2001)
are the two main ways our students learn. Although they
eventually need to know how and why of a problem, but their
natural initial approach will be how they learn best. The student
asking the how question wants to dissect the topic, take it apart,
and put it together; the student asking the why question wants to
talk it out and find some personal meaning to what he or she is
Discussions in Efed's classroom do not happen just between the
instructor and the student, but between the students
themselves. He gives short in-class assignments to students to
start an exchange of ideas between them. Yes, some of Efed’s
colleagues complain that there is not enough time to finish the
course. However, Efed would rather have them gain an excellent
knowledge of the most important and necessary material, instead
of a mediocre understanding an overabundance of material.
Other ways to use classroom time more effectively, Efed asks
students to learn some parts of the course on their own. He then
does not hesitate to ask questions on the self-learned material in
the tests. His students hence gain an ownership of the material,
build up confidence that they can learn new material on their own,
and develop a habit of self-learning.
Efed encourages students to work in teams and study in groups.
He may even allow them to discuss homework assignments but
not let them simply copy from each other. Again, new web-based
technologies that generate unique homework assignments for
each student fosters teamwork without sacrificing individual
7. Efed has high expectations
Mention that you have high expectations and many educators will
call it an oxymoron. They perceive students are ill prepared in the
first place. In fact, repeatedly, Efed finds that when students
know that you are serious about their learning, and that high (not
higher) expectations are the norm for you, they will deliver. In
fact, the high level of student performance no longer surprises
A word of caution - Efed’s high expectations do not translate to
doubling the number of assignments and giving longer projects,
but to make no compromises in meeting the objectives and goals
of the course.
The techniques discussed above are intended to characterize an
effective engineering educator. I know you see Efed in yourself,
and that there are other techniques you would like to add to the
I will leave the readers with a sobering fact. The very first
principle in “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate
Teaching” (Chickering and Gamson, 1987) is:
“Good practice in undergraduate education encourages contact
between students and faculty: Frequent student-faculty contact in
and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation
The sobering fact is what Astin (1993) found -
“Greater interaction with faculty may not have the same positive
effect on engineering students simply because these interactions are
less likely to be perceived as favorable”.
The author wants to thank all his students who have taught him
as much, if not more than what he has taught them since he
started his career at USF in 1987. Special thanks go to the
Teaching Enhancement Center of the University of South Florida
for teaching me that effective teaching is more than an art; it can
be a learned habit. This article was presented at the Annual
Conference of the American Society of Engineering Education
(ASEE), June 20-23, 2003, Nashville, TN. The author thanks an
anonymous reviewer for their constructive feedback on this paper.