With the creation of a new Power Electronics curriculum by ECE faculty Ned Mohan, Bill Robbins, Vern Albertson (retired), Bruce Wollenberg, Paul Imbertson, Tom Posbergh, and Sairaj Dhople, the need emerged for a new method of presenting the materials and testing the students’ learning and retention of the complex concepts. Jia-Ling Lin, Ph.D., a research scientist for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Education Center in the College of Human Development and Education, and ECE instructor Prof. Paul Imbertson collaborated throughout three semesters during three years to develop a new instructional model to present the new curriculum effectively. Before they were done, Lin would conduct hours of research into education practicum and Imbertson would shape and reshape his teaching methods.
Throughout the three semesters, they conducted surveys and focus group meetings. In spring 2013 and 2014, they taped classroom discussions and prepared transcripts. Says Lin, “We knew our model was a success the day a student in class asked a question of a classmate, ‘Why did you use this equation instead of that one?’ Students had learned to think for themselves, to ask the deeper questions, and to demonstrate that they understood the material.”
“No longer was the classroom one-sided with a leader providing information and the students parroting it back during testing,” Lin says. “Dr. Mohan’s new curriculum provided a new context and our new instructional model reinforced an active learning model.”
Three years of instructional modeling
Tamara Moore, Ph.D., the former director of the STEM education Center, had worked with Mohan during the Power Electronics curriculum development process, and upon the project’s completion, Moore asked Lin to assess the implementation of new inquiry-based STEM teaching practices designed to enhance learning in the new curriculum. “I observed that the classical education theory still would be incorporated but the method had to be modernized in some fashion,” Lin says. “We would have to devise new ways of identifying students’ mastery of the material.”
Imbertson was the instructor assigned to EE4701 Electric Drives, one of three core courses to the Power Electronics curriculum. Lin and Imbertson discussed the risks for the new curriculum, the ways new concepts could be provided, and the best use of the pre-recorded lectures and other materials provided by Prof. Mohan and his team. Imbertson says, “It’s important that the students master new skills because engineers must talk to everyone, they must ask questions, they must learn from their peers, and they must work well in groups without a leader present. If choices are difficult in problem solving, they must be able to keep talking and asking great questions.”
Lin conducted an extensive literature search of classroom practice models involving problem-centered learning. “I found developing new methods would require the classroom professor to make moment to moment decisions as he taught,” she says. “The literature stressed that students must be engaged and that learning would include actual implementation of practice rather than passive listening. The instructor’s role would change considerably; no longer would the instructor be the sole authority, rather, he would be a consultative partner with the students. “The notion of flipping classrooms, originating from Khan Academy, has extended into the design of pedagogical support techniques. The model that we created incorporated some techniques from inquiry-based math and science teaching in pre-college classrooms to foster active learning,” Lin says.
Lin and Imbertson turned the short project into a scholarly and fruitful collaboration. Lin attended and critiqued all of the class meetings during a three-year period and Lin and Imbertson met an hour every week to fine-tune the method. “At the beginning of the semester, students had been boisterous and noisy,” Lin says. “As the group problem presentation and evaluation sessions became more refined, the students became more engaged and focused. When Prof. Imbertson gave the important clarifying lectures, both long and short, students began to ask thoughtful questions and were eager to understand and learn more. One day, more than 20 students stayed an extra 40 minutes after class to continue the discussion. We knew then that the new method was working to build engagement.”
At the end of each semester, students provided positive feedback about the new classroom method. One student reported that the best part of this class was that he learned how to ask questions. “We were delighted with that observation,” Lin says. “Formulating and asking questions is one of the most important skills an engineer can have. It was Mother’s Day week and this student’s observation was a wonderful Mother’s Day gift for me. ”
Lin and Imbertson “Four-Practice Model”
Practice One – Anticipating included creating problems for students to solve within the context of having listened to the lectures outside of class time. This technique often is referred to as “Flipping the Classroom” where lecture and reading occur outside the classroom and solving and discussion of problems occur in the classroom among one’s classmates and with the instructor as a guide. During class time, the Electric Drives students worked in groups of three to five, discussing and helping each other with the problems presented.
Practice Two – Monitoring involved the instructor’s active observation of the students’ discussion during their group work. During this time, the instructor shared authority in the classroom with the students encouraging them to take the ownership of their learning. Imbertson walked around listening to the students, coaching as he went along, and noting the problematic areas where students were struggling.
Practice Three – Connecting and contrasting involved scaffolding inquiries, displaying the groups’ work and sharing the students’ responses with the whole class. During the classroom discussion, the instructor would either “connect” or “contrast” the students’ views with the discipline. Through this process, Imbertson would reassure the students’ authority of their answers, and hold them accountable by asking questions of how their work related to the context materials, and move the whole class forward.
Practice Four – Contextualized Lecturing involved the instructor presenting a lecture based on the student’s responses to the material. This involved “teaching in the moment” in response to the areas which seemed problematic to the students, or were in need of reinforcement. It helped students to understand what it means to be accountable for knowledge in the engineering discipline
Key Points from the Research
- In a single model of problem-based learning classroom, some students did well, while others were stuck and were just wasting time.
- A short discussion leading to a numerical solution doesn’t mean that the students know the concepts. The longer the discussion lasts the more clearly one can ascertain if the students are engaging in true learning.
- Solving problems and knowing the solution is successful only if the students also understand the learning process.
- Instructors embraced this new model because it frees time to help students learn to learn.
- Students were more cooperative, more open to sharing and helping each other, and avoided the sometimes negative side of group dynamics with this instructional model.
- Using the new model requires the instructor to revise his problems and solutions as well as discussions on the spot – one needs to be able to shift focus during the class time. When the instructor observed students displaying difficulty with a concept, the instructor would shift to coaching and lecturing if necessary.
- Active learning is observed daily.
- Instructors model transparency and honesty through the use of inclusion techniques, i.e. “Let’s find out together”, rather than “I have all the answers, listen to me.”
- Memorizing for the test and low excitement for learning in the classroom were eliminated.
- Learning becomes a positive activity, even when students were wrong about a problem. Reframing the content and trying again reinforces learning to learn.