Learning How to Learn: Teaching Self-Awareness in Engineering

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Adam Uliana, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019

“I studied, like, forever on everything we learned except what was on the exam. And I just got unlucky with dumb math mistakes.” Such overly simplified explanations echoed the room as I passed out graded midterm exams in my discussion section of Introduction to Chemical Engineering Design. Of the eight discussion sections in the course, my section scored the lowest average grade on the exam. This result initially surprised me: I knew every student in my section possessed a surplus of talent and diligence. However, their comments allowed me to realize what both they and I lacked: self-awareness.

Problem: Engineering disciplines seldom place focus on learning how to learn—or learning how to analyze, understand, and improve one’s own thought processes—leading to misinformed habits that hinder student and instructor development. Engineering students can become so engrossed in analyzing equations that they often fail to dedicate time to analyzing themselves. Consequently, students are often unaware that a poor grade may result from poor test-taking strategies or inefficient study habits rather than a lack of knowledge. Likewise, instructors who have become familiar with course material are often unaware of what their students are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with, resulting in a discord between the instructor and the classroom.

Solution: After handing back midterms, I gave students ten minutes to write down personal reflections guided by three self-critique questions: what habits they had been doing well (for positive reinforcement), what habits they had been doing poorly (for negative reinforcement), and what habits they needed to change in order to become better students. I also designated the final five minutes of every succeeding discussion section to addressing not only what concepts still confused students, but also why these concepts confused them (e.g., Is the notation unclear? Are they unsure of how to first approach a problem? Is the math just tricky?). Encouraging students to analyze their thought processes—and what truly causes confusion—helped students better identify where their study efforts should be focused. To improve my own awareness as an instructor, I created a weekly feedback form online where students anonymously submitted concepts they wanted me to clarify and ideas for how I could better address their needs.

Assessment: Ultimately, I evaluated how three aspects changed by the end of the semester: (1) the types of questions that students asked, (2) my own self-awareness as an instructor, and (3) student exam performance. The first assessment placed a greater focus on improving self-awareness. At the beginning of the semester, students asked questions such as: “What formulas should I use to calculate the outlet flow rate?” After the midterm, students began consistently asking questions about their own learning, such as: “How should I think when I see a problem with a reactor?” and “How can I become more aware of potential math mistakes I might make?” By reading weekly student evaluations, I was able to track my own improved self-awareness. Finally, I was pleased to see that exam performance improved drastically. While my section scored the lowest average midterm grade, they earned the highest average final exam grade. Reflecting on their improvements has made me a proud GSI, and I hope their self-reflections will continue to turn their misconceptions into future opportunities to reflect on their learning.