Independent but Directed Learning

Traditionally at a wide variety of schools, students attend lecture classes where they gain a significant portion of their knowledge. These classes typically have a professor standing in front of the classroom, writing on the board, conveying information to the students. The vast majority of the classes that students take in at the University of Michigan in the College of Engineering are lecture oriented, and those classes attempt to impart knowledge to students through this method.

Conversely, when one talks to industrial recruiters, employers are looking for skills in addition to knowledge. Recruiters do want to know what classes the students have taken, but the conversations quickly turn to what organizations the student has participated in and what the student did in these organizations. They assume that the knowledge has been imparted to the student through the classes, and then they want to get a feel for what skills or experiences the student has. Students who end up having the skills that the recruiter is looking for end up being hired.

Further, when the students do participate in student organizations that tend to impart skills, the experience that the student has varies wildly from group to group and from year to year. If there are extremely talented junior or senior level students, they can teach the freshmen or sophomores new skills. If there is a lack of talent at the upper levels, then those skills may not be imparted, so that the student group may end up being deficient of talent for many “generations”.

In addition, students often self-report their own skills and contributions to student teams. While these students may not intentionally deceive recruiters, they may not fully understand their skill level, and may misrepresent what they are or are not capable of doing. This is not really the student’s fault, it is that there may not be a yard-stick for the students to measure their capabilities against. In addition, faculty mentors of large teams may rely heavily on other student team members for feedback on student performance, thereby making it difficult to fully determine the skill level of the student, when letters of support are written.

At the master’s degree level, this problem is even more severe, since the expectation is that a student graduating with a master’s degree really has a set of skills. If the master’s students simply take more classes, they are not gaining the skills that employers desire. In many ways, the classical way of thinking about education is that a bachelor’s degree is supposed to provide knowledge, while a master’s degree is supposed to provide skills. This paradigm is shifting to include skills at the bachelor’s level too. If we fail to teach skills at both levels, we are falling behind the expectation of industry.

Laboratory classes do exist, and the students do gain skills in this setting. Further, the classes have an absolute measurement of how skillful the student is at the end of the lab, since they get a grade. These lab classes are relatively few and far between, though. In addition, the laboratory classes are often cook-book style classes, in which the student does step 1, then step 2, then step 3, etc, until the process is complete. (In my own experience doing physics labs, we would often determine what the answers should be, then work backwards to the measurements that we were supposed to take – it was much easier than actually doing the labs!) The students do not have the opportunity to really solve open-ended problems that are quite difficult and multi-step. Therefore, when they are given problems that are extremely complex and involve many different steps to solve, the majority of the students tend to not have any idea how to proceed.  I have seen this stagnation over and over again, simply due to the fact that the students could not determine what the first step was in the process.

One way to solve the lack-of-skills problem is to come up with more laboratory classes that become more challenging the higher the level of class. This is a promising solution, since the professors who run the classes would have control over the labs and the grading of the students. There are a number of problems with laboratory classes, though. For example, the equipment is difficult to maintain at a consistent level. The laboratory classes are also as good as the amount of energy that the professor puts into the class. Finally, the expectation of the students is that laboratory classes are cookie-cutter classes, with the solution handed to them. While this is not true of some laboratory classes (or project classes), it is often the case.

Another solution would be to somehow improve the ability of student groups to provide skills training to other students, and for the departments to incentivize the students to become involved with student groups. The skill providing could be done by making a series of labs that the students could complete to learn a skill. If the labs were set up in a way in which they started out relatively easy and became more complex, then students would be able to learn the set of skills that they need to have a meaningful role in the student group. This would also provide practical skills that they would be able to use in their jobs after they graduate. The labs would not have solutions, but would have guides in the form of either write-ups or videos that other students create to assist the less experienced students. The students could have the labs checked by a designated senior student, faculty or staff member, so that the get “credit” for completing the lab. The labs could be created by the student groups and/or by faculty and staff working with the student groups. The most important part is that the labs are self-directed and start out extremely easy for the students to complete (say 1-2 hours for the first lab), but gain in complexity, so that the final lab(s) in the series take at least a few weeks to a couple of months to complete. Indeed, the final lab may be made up by the student who is going to complete it, with the approval of the complexity being checked by the student group or the faculty advisor.

One might ask why the students would participate and complete the labs. The faculty and staff could strongly reward the participation in these lab exercises. For example, a web page for the student organization could list all of the labs, and include a list of all of the students who have completed each of the labs. Faculty could judge students by how many of the labs they have completed, describing the system and the achievement of the particular student when writing a letter of recommendation. For students who are seeking jobs with faculty or staff members, they could use the labs that they have completed as part of their resume, so that the faculty or staff know exactly what particular skill sets the students have obtained. In addition, the students themselves would have a very clear understanding of their skill set with respect to other students around them.

The expectation is that these labs build skills, but do not take away from the main goals of the student group. This is quite important, since the student teams have to see the student labs as being a powerful method of assistance to them. They cannot see the labs as a distraction. Therefore, while the first many labs may not result in anything that is useful to the group (but they would not take much time to complete), the latter labs should have intrinsic merit to the student group. Selecting and designing the labs will take a lot of time.

In many ways, this same idea could be done in an individual research group. A faculty member could come up with a series of tasks for students to complete on their own. They could ask other students or read documentation on how to complete the tasks, but the faculty advisor would not have to necessarily guide the student much until they have completed some number of labs. In this way, the student would gain the skills that they need to work in the researcher’s lab, but would not have to invest a huge amount of time training each individual student. The student could then start to provide a meaningful contribution to the team much faster than before.


About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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