Motivating Students with Choice

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Mary Trahanovsky, Materials Science & Engineering

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2006

In an engineering lab course, students’ preparation is key to the effectiveness of the experience. It is also a difficult thing to motivate. In this short essay, I present an innovative method for improving students’ learning experience by allowing them to select which lab questions they will answer and therefore which portions of the lab they will do.

In E45, a typical engineering lab, students download a lab report that they are instructed to read before attending their lab. Methods commonly used to encourage them to prepare include giving homework assignments or in-lab quizzes. Both of these methods consume lab and instructor time and neither method is effective in getting students to really think about what will be going on in the lab or how difficult the experiments and lab questions will be. The strategy I used was to make students responsible for deciding what they do in lab.

As usual, the lab reports contained a set of questions students had to answer after the lab was done. What was different from the norm is that they were only required to answer a portion of the questions, and they each selected which they did. For example, a lab may have six sections, each with three questions, for a total of 18 questions, of which they must answer 9. Clearly, they would then have to complete at least three of the sections. If they only completed three sections, when their labs were due, they had to answer all 9 out of the pertinent 9 questions. If they chose to do all six sections, they could answer any 9 out of 18, which took more time in the lab but gave them more flexibility with the questions once they began their write-up.

Ideally, students would make a game of optimizing their lab experience. This required serious forethought about what each section of the lab involved and what each question involved. An important side effect was the development of students’ ability to judge the complexity of a lab experiment before performing it. This is a critical skill for an experimentalist, whether a graduate student or a professional engineer. Some students estimated that one section was trivial and it turned out to be much more time consuming than anticipated. Others assumed a certain question would be difficult, but were surprised at how easy it was after they did the relevant experiment. Another benefit of this method is that it gave more flexibility to students with different learning styles and attitudes, which was useful in a lab with students from many different levels of interest and expertise. Students who were very slow at lab work could do fewer sections with less stress, and students who were curious could do more sections and would have the bonus that they got more instructor attention after other students finished early. Another benefit is that students felt more ownership of their choices, and were less likely to complain about the length of the lab.

As an instructor I also benefit by using this method. In one lab, two sections and six questions were regularly avoided. This indicated which concepts students perceived as difficult. I was most interested to find that each lab section was completed by someone and that none of the questions was entirely avoided. This gave me some insight into the variety of students’ learning interests. A few students informally indicated they appreciated having the freedom to decide how to spend their time. I also heard students discussing what different experiments were like with each other, which was a good exercise that many would have dreaded if they were required to do.

Overall, although this method was a little more complicated than a standard lab procedure, it had many benefits. It made students feel more in charge of their decisions, allowed for differing learning types, and gave me valuable feedback.