Strategies for Improving the Classroom Environment

By Finelli, Cynthia J.; Klinger, Allen et al. | Journal of Engineering Education, October 2001 | Go to article overview
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Strategies for Improving the Classroom Environment


Finelli, Cynthia J., Klinger, Allen, Budny, Dan D., Journal of Engineering Education


Strategies for Improving the Classroom Environment*

ABSTRACT

This paper describes some strategies for the educator seeking to better his/her classroom effectiveness. It was inspired by one of the technical sessions ofthe 29th Annual IEEE/ASEE Frontiers in Education Conference in which over a dozen experienced college instructors engaged in a roundtable discussion of ways to improve a classroom environment. In this paper, those ideas are discussed and then supplemented with general advice and specific suggestions from the experience of the authors. The paper concludes with a bibliography of related reference material from a wide variety of educational sources.

I. INTRODUCTION

An increasingly global and technical workplace requires United States colleges and universities to adapt the science and engineering classroom in order to attract and retain a diverse student body. At a national level, various reports-including the American Society for Engineering Education's "Engineering Education for a Changing World"1 and the National Science Foundation's "Restructuring Engineering Education: A Focus on Change"2-have recognized this challenge and have made recommendations to reform science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) education. Besides describing faculty reward systems and comprehensive change across a college campus, these reports discuss a classroom environment where the process of education is student-centered, which features active learning, and that accommodates students' varied learning styles.

In her monograph, They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier,3 Sheila Tobias echoes these findings. Her work pinpoints some specific classroom characteristics that, if addressed, might help to retain some of the "second tier" students (i.e., those often high achievers who are serious about their learning and career goals but who, for some reason, chose not to pursue science and engineering). In particular, she notes the "classroom culture" of science and the traditional classroom environment and teaching style used. She asserts that many traditional science courses suffer from a lack of community (both between the instructor and the students and among the students themselves) and that many students desire this relationship and are more successful when it is incorporated into the classroom. Other factors that Dr. Tobias identifies as potentially inhibiting student success are the lack of identifiable goals in a course (i.e., the "big picture"), the competitive environment that is sometimes present in science and engineering courses, and the often exclusive problem solving nature of the classroom. She further states that many students would respond better to science if more cooperative and interactive modes of learning were part of the pedagogy, and if scientific knowledge were more closely and explicitly linked to important societal issues.

This paper discusses some practical suggestions for improving the classroom environment, many of which parallel the strategies discussed by Dr. Tobias. The ideas were inspired by a roundtable discussion of over a dozen science and engineering educators at one session of the 29th Annual IEEE/ASEE Frontiers in Education Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That session led to a follow-up presentation at the 30th Annual IEEE/ASEE Frontiers in Education Conference4 where general advice and specific suggestions from the experience of the authors were used to supplement suggestions from the roundtable discussion. This paper is a further extension of that presentation. Here, strategies for success are categorized into activities that pertain to planning the course and those that concern conducting the course. A bibliography included at the end of this paper could be beneficial to instructors before entering the planning phase or throughout the course duration.

II. STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS

A. Planning the Course

Success in a course comes, in part, from having planned structure.

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