Passion will thaw those now frozen in low gear

March 26, 2004

It's 9am Monday and the lecture hall is ice cold - how do you get engineering students fired up? John O'Brien suggests stoking up their enthusiasm

Any student is difficult at 9am on a Monday, but engineering students doubly so. After a horrific night dreaming of differential equations or writing down "j" to three decimal places, we are expected to leap out of bed and rush to lectures. Sitting on solid benches in a freezing lecture theatre, it is hard not to be envious of those arts and humanities students who do not have to get up until Thursday.

It takes a brave person to face such an audience, but bravery is not enough for a good engineering lecturer. You may be able to get away with an hour's waffle in some subjects, but not this one. Any lecturer worth their salt must constantly remind students why they chose the course in the first place. They must tap into the core of the enthusiasm that every engineer possesses - that thrill of trying to understand how things work.

Enthusiasm is also the single most important trait that a lecturer can possess. How can a speaker be boring if they are passionate about the topic they are explaining? Students cannot help but listen and be interested.

Admittedly, even the most committed lecturer may find it difficult to display enthusiasm for dull pieces of mathematical working, but if they can justify them as a necessary step towards something much more exciting, the audience will be carried along by the momentum (or is that inertia?).

A student must have the opportunity as well as the motive to learn, and that means that lecturers must be able to put across difficult concepts in ways that can be easily understood. This is very tricky. It requires a knack for example and analogy, a feel for how a concept looks to a student who does not yet understand it and an instinct for how well the audience understood the last sentence uttered. A good lecturer will see the collective brow-furrowing of a group of bamboozled students and try the concept again from a different angle.

It is here that a connection with the audience is important. A method of teaching that was an instant success with students last year may only confuse this year's batch. A concept that required half an hour of careful explanation last time may take only five minutes with a new audience. If lecturers have a feel for their audience's reaction, they will avoid boring them with needless elaboration or confusing them with too brief an example.

The other skills of an engineering lecturer are basic and easily learnt, but that doesn't mean that everyone has them. The best explanation possible is useless if it is mumbled into the floor. The most devious proof on the overhead projector is confounded if all the students see is illegible scrawl. A lecturer can have prepared a computerised demonstration so ingenious that it could teach calculus to a chipmunk, but if the battery is dead in the laptop or the projector will not work, it will have all been for nothing. A perfect lecturer will speak with presence, write with frightening speed yet total clarity and start every lecture precisely when it is supposed to start. The good lecturers will aspire to this, make sure they read their student feedback forms to check their progress and modify their lecturing accordingly.

The final trait of a good lecturer is the ability to produce a brilliant set of handouts. These should be detailed enough for the hungover student to just about work out what was missed while having enough absent material to force the laziest to open a pencil case and do some annotations. Good handouts mean that it is not necessary to spend the entire lecture frantically scribbling with no time to think, but they are not an invitation to fall asleep.

Lecturers, whether they like it or not, will have a profound influence on the careers of their students and, therefore, on the future of engineering.

They are giving their students the foundations of knowledge and skills on which to build their careers. But the good ones will also develop their students' natural sense of wonder at the way things work and fire their ambition to make them work in new and even better ways. And that, ultimately, is what engineering is all about.

John O'Brien is an engineering student at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University. This is an edited version of his essay "What makes a good engineering lecturer", which won The Learning and Teaching Support Centre: Engineering's 2003-04 student award.

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