Strategies for Success in the Engineering Classroom

in NEWS, Spotlight Master's

Dr. Thomas Little, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

As we continue to improve the educational experience for our students, the College of Engineering is finding ways to increase student engagement by adopting new teaching formats as alternatives to the traditional lecture. What are these new formats? What should students expect in the classroom? And, how should they prepare to ensure success?

What is ‘Active Learning’?

Standing2In the classic lecture format, familiar to most college students, a professor presents materials using a chalkboard or presentation slides and students take notes. Students perform problem sets as homework and later the students are assessed using exams throughout the course. In the ‘active learning’ approach, students are expected to learn course materials through reading or recorded lectures done as homework, and the time in the classroom is used for the application of the theory learned as preparation for the active learning classroom.

A typical classroom session with active learning consists of one or two topics or active learning modules. In each module the professor will assign to the class, for example, a problem related to the topic material covered as homework. The class will often be decomposed into small groups (of size 3-6 students). Each group will formulate a solution to the assigned problem, discussing amongst themselves appropriate approaches. The instructor, instead of lecturing, will rotate through the classroom discussing solution approaches with each group. At the end of a suitable analysis period, the instructor will call on each group to describe to the class the results of their work. Results are compared and contrasted and insights to the problem solving are discovered and shared with the class. This process is repeated with variations, often with a recap at the conclusion of the classroom session.

The realized benefit of active learning is threefold: (1) students become engaged in the learning process and application of concepts; they must be aware and present in the classroom rather than as scribes of lecture material; (2) students receive more individual attention as the professor’s time is spent interacting with small groups and with individual students in instruction tailored to their needs; instruction can now be done to the level of individuals instead of to the average level of the whole class; and (3) there is evidence that this teaching paradigm leads to better knowledge retention and is generally more fun.

Tips for Active Learning

sittingThe professor will provide the rules for the classroom experience at the start of the course, but students can take several steps to participate effectively and get the most out of the opportunity:

  1. Come to class prepared: This means performing the required reading or review of recorded lectures.
  2. Facilitate your group: When your group is assigned a problem, identify a note-taker, a discussion leader, and contributors. Rotate roles for each active learning unit.
  3. Get involved: When your group is assigned a problem, be engaged and contribute to the problem solution. The combined efforts of the group will be greater than the individual parts.
  4. Ask for help: If anything is unclear, get help. The instructor expects to work directly with groups in the active learning format.
  5. Speak up: being a group’s presenter can be difficult but is an opportunity to be recognized by the instructor and by the class. Be proud of your work!
  6. Have fun: Active learning is not stiff and formal like you find in a lecture. Participation with your peers in a small group is effective, social, and an opportunity to make learning much more satisfying.

The College of Engineering strives to realize the most effective way to educate our students. Active learning is a new approach that is aligned with achieving these goals and is one of many initiatives to educate the next generation of Engineers.


Tom Little is the Associate Dean of Educational Initiatives and a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the College of Engineering, where he is leading an initiative to incorporate ‘active learning’ into the engineering classroom.