Teaching My Students to Fish

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by A. S. Cheng, Mechanical Engineering

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2001

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. It’s an old Chinese proverb that I’ve found as applicable to filling a student’s mind with knowledge as it is to filling an empty stomach with food.

During my tenure as a GSI for the Department of Mechanical Engineering, I have regularly encountered students who, in the context of the Chinese proverb, seek handouts of fish. These students would rather be given the answers and solutions to their assignments than have to work to find them. They would gladly take whatever shortcuts there may be to obtaining a good letter grade. Although such cases may be less common in other academic departments, many engineering students have been conditioned that they can succeed by simply duplicating textbook examples or blindly churning through mathematical formulas without understanding the underlying theory. Teaching these students to engage in critical thinking is vital, and was a particular challenge in the course ME 107A: Experimentation and Measurement.

In ME 107A, students performed experiments related to a variety of engineering topics such as acoustics and fluid mechanics. They were given lectures and handouts to provide theoretical background as well as to describe experimental equipment and procedures. This information was meant to guide the students in their laboratory assignments, not to provide them with step-by-step instructions on carrying them out. However, as the GSI, I would often be sought out in lab to provide explicit direction. Students would ask me questions such as “Where am I supposed to plug this cable?” or “How many data points am I supposed to take?” When attempting to run a data acquisition program that was provided to them, they would find me and say, “My program doesn’t work,” with the implicit follow-up question, “Could you fix it for me?” These situations would occur before the students thought about the problems they were faced with or attempted to resolve the problems for themselves.

The first step I took to encourage students to think more carefully about their lab assignments was to refrain from simply answering the questions I felt that they had the capability to answer for themselves. I would ask them to tell me what they were trying to accomplish in their experiment and lead them to the answer rather than give it to them. I would remind them what the objective of the experiment was and ask them what data they felt they would need to obtain to accomplish that objective. For the data acquisition software, I implemented a specific change to promote better understanding of the software and its use in the lab. Rather than give the students a program to copy onto their lab computers, I made it part of the assignment to develop the program, requiring them to understand the role it played in collecting and processing the experimental data as well as the manner in which it controlled some of the hardware.

Although some students were initially frustrated by my refusal to simply tell them what to do, I believe that they came to understand the value of thinking analytically about the experiments they were conducting and the assignments they were given. One student even went through a short period of time in which he would start to ask a question but then retract it, realizing that I would want him to think about it more carefully before seeking my help. To observe such changes in the students, as well as to receive positive feedback at the end of the course, indicated to me that my efforts were not in vain. Much like teaching the man in the Chinese proverb to fish, I felt that teaching my students the way to think about and analyze engineering problems provided them with a valuable skill. It is a skill that they can hopefully further refine and use as their careers progress.