Last of a series of posts about an aeronautical engineering course I created this year.
What a journey. It took many weeks to recover from teaching the course and many more to be able to look back calmly. I view the course as a success, but there are significant weaknesses I would like to address.
- First and foremost, the course is run at an insane pace and makes tremendous demands on the students’ energy reserves and timetable. This goes directly against the self-initiative and explorative learning that I want to encourage.
This problem has its roots deep within the education system and in its engineering sector in particular. The area is intensely competitive and the value of courses (as well as the recognition of their teachers and to some extent the choices of the students) is measured in great part by their difficulty. For me, working at home or in class is a continuous battle trying not to give in to the irrational and counter-productive fear that the students find the content too easy; and there is no incentive whatsoever to walk at a pace slower than the most extreme one students can sustain.
With this in mind, it will be difficult to remove content on the premise that more will be learned — even though this is an obvious truth and the most straightforward path for me to improve this course. I will try.
- Second, the in-class time1 was not used optimally.
By starting with the student presentations from the previous project, I mis-used the first 45 minutes of each session, which is the prime slot for student attention.2. Kicking in a new lecture with wholly new concepts and vocabulary one hour into the session is making poor use of the student’s time and energy.
As for the projects, they require significant ground-work and number churning before they yield interesting results. Late starts due to presentations and long lectures meant that the truly interesting aspects of projects —new conceptualizations, important decisions, conclusions etc.— most often took place much later during the week, and outside the class. It is regrettable that I could not help steer and encourage students in these moments.
Next year, I will likely move student presentations to just after the lunch break and try to shorten the lectures. I also intend to hand the projects out very early on (perhaps even one week ahead), and —gasp— make the hand-outs a little more specific as to where the interesting parts are.
- I need to work on improving student participation and well-being in class. My friend David lead by example and left me with many leads for nurturing class participation and involvement during lectures. I should also have much more time next year to address the teamwork issues that undermined so many projects.
In the coming edition, I will invest time in talking about efficient team-work and problem-solving practices — this course has shown me that here too, a little “top-down” theory helps in practice. I will also ask groups to designate group leaders, which I think will help with structuring and reporting progress.
- Finally, I will work on improving marking. Overall the grades were not outstanding, as I was often disappointed by the structure and solidity of the students’ work (rather than the actual results). I went to great lengths to explain what I thought needed improvement in each report and presentation, but I felt some dis-satisfaction and sometimes even plain de-motivation among the students when they received their mark3.
This is understandable. The key to effective marking is keeping a close relationship between the graded work and the obtained mark: a timely correction, transparent marking criteria, and a human connection to mesh and comment them. In this case, the timespan for handing in projects is one week, and I then need three to five days to correct and mark them. So by the time I got to discuss the mark of, say, project A with someone, they would have handed in project B and would already be working on project C, each week within a newly-shuffled group4!
To ensure better connection between the handed-in work and the corresponding mark, I will dedicate time within class sessions to de-briefing previous projects orally with individual student groups. I will also “freeze” groups for several weeks in a row so that feedback can be gathered and acted upon more easily.
So much for the criticism. I won’t elaborate on the positive points — these were eight intense, demanding weeks crammed with new knowledge. Also, a great deal of new material was released under a Creative Commons license for the benefit of all who wish to study it. The students’ feedback was rather good and I think much was learned overall.
I set out to build this course with the hope of going by two precepts: learn by yourself, and learn by doing.
“Learn by yourself” in the sense that I hoped to engage students in the set-up of the projects as well as the selection of topics, and more so because I wished to let them choose and identify their areas of interest within projects, working without a precise set of instructions.
“Learn by doing” in the sense that I tried to have us work from real-life examples (e.g. a 777 MTOW take-off) up into the underlying theory, instead of the opposite (e.g. “what real-life application would illustrate the use of that equation?”). I hoped to provide students with near-real-life problems that they could solve with the analytical or methodological tools of their choice. Using a new tool or method because you need and chose it to do something is a much more effective learning experience than starting from the tool and then looking for applications5.
These two high-level pedagogical objectives would best be pursued with loosely-defined, fully-customized, mostly-improvised sessions in class.
Of course, any teacher will know that this is not a realistic proposition. My employer will not hire me, the head of studies will not allocate a slot for the course, the students’ future employers will not give the diploma credibility, unless a detailed, fully planned-ahead course curriculum is written out. As a consequence, when the course begins a very large amount of structure and limitation is already built-in, so that naturally we neither have completely “learn by yourself” nor entirely “learn by doing”. I’ve lived with this limitation ever since I wanted to teach.
The one big thing that I have learned going through this course, however, was that these practical requirements are not the only obstacles to enabling true learning. I have found that countless small elements not directly related to the course content have their importance. Ensuring that groups communicate efficiently, that they keep track of their progress, ferociously battling student timidity and over-subordination, carefully scheduling sessions all the way down to 15-minute slots, all these seemingly insignificant things end up determining whether or not most students will have a successful learning experience, even if the content is well-prepared and of high quality.
This discovery triggers a series of thoughts and ideas about the process of learning and the weight of social and cultural habits in our universities — but enough for now. “Aspects of Aircraft Design and Control” been a terrific experience. I look forward to next year.
- Each session was six or seven hours long with three or four breaks: two student presentations, followed by the new lecture, followed by group work on the new project. [↩]
- It is blatant that we need better and systematic consideration of student attention in the construction of lecture and timetables. We are very, very far from this at the moment. [↩]
- Note that unfortunately, it is extremely rare and daring for a student to question or even discuss his/her marks with a teacher where I work =( [↩]
- An additional problem would be that only one student in each group would keep the marked report, meaning that most students would keep no trace at all of past work. Many small details like this add up to large effects. [↩]
- Indeed, one of the greatest successes of the course was that the students used, entirely upon their own initiative, a great variety of tools (hand-drawing, programming, spreadsheets, 3D-CAD, CFD, FEA software), even though there were many mis-uses and mistakes. [↩]