CHapter One, 7(3), 42-44 (1993).
You say things aren't going quite the way you'd like this semester,
especially in your ten o'clock class? The professor just covers
the board with equations and doesn't explain anything? The textbook
is dry as dust and doesn't have worked-out examples? The exam
problems are nothing like the homework and class averages are
in the 40's?
Well, I'm not unsympathetic--I had some classes like that in my
day and complained about them just as bitterly. Unfortunately,
while complaining may make you feel better, it won't do a thing
for your grades. I'd like to propose several more productive ways
to help yourself.
First, though, let me suggest that the real problem is not that
professor who's making your life miserable. It's that over the
years you've bought into a message that goes like this: "My
teachers have the truth, the wisdom, the tricks of the trade.
Their job is to feed it all to me in lectures, and my job is to
soak it up and then repeat it on homework and exams. If I can
do that, I've learned what I need to know...and that's the only
way I can learn it."
Wrong! That approach may have worked in high school and earlier,
but it begins to fail in college--and once you get into the plant
or research lab, it stops working completely. On the job there
are no teachers, lectures, homework, or exams. There are only
problems--usually poorly defined ones--and solutions that are
either acceptable or not. To make it worse, you no longer get
partial credit for solutions that don't work, even if you use
the correct formula. If you design ten reactors and one blows
up, trust me--they won't give you a 90 and congratulate you.
And yet every day, hundreds of thousands of engineers, most no
brighter than you--many not as bright--who once struggled with
their own confusing instructors and texts and didn't understand
entropy any better than you do, are out there doing just fine,
figuring out what they need to know and solving their problems.
How do they do it? They know a few things you still haven't discovered,
that's how. They learned soon after graduating not to count on
someone else telling them everything they need to know to solve
their problems. Then they learned how to find out for themselves
what they need to know, and discovered that there is a lot of
help available if they know where to go for it.
These engineers learned those things out of necessity, most of
them after graduating. What I'd like to do here is give you a
head start, both to help you do better in your remaining courses
and to enable you to hit the ground running on your first job.
Give the ideas a try. You have nothing to lose, and if they work
(and I'm pretty sure that at some of them will), you win.
Figure out what you need to make course material clearer
Students have different learning styles (ways of perceiving and
processing information), and tend to run into trouble in courses
in which the instructor's teaching style doesn't match their learning
style.1-5 Engineering students commonly complain about
the following learning and teaching style mismatches. See which
complaints you might echo.
Identifying your problems in a course is the first step toward
solving them. Once you know what's missing, you can take additional
steps to fill in the gaps.
Ask your instructor for help, in or out of class
Contrary to popular rumor, most professors genuinely care about
students and want them to learn. In fact, a common complaint of
professors is that their students almost never ask questions except
the inevitable, "Are we responsible for this on the test?"
If you don't understand a point, try asking for something that
might clarify it for you. Look back at the list in the previous
section for ideas about what might do it. "Could you give
an example?" "Could you sketch what that (device,
solution, plot) might look like?" "Where did
that equation you just wrote come from?" "When
can't you use that formula?" " Could you say
something about how this (theory, procedure, equation) is applied
in practice?" Even if you're afraid a question is stupid,
ask it anyway. I guarantee that others in the class are equally
confused and will be grateful to you for having the nerve to speak
Many instructors will welcome these questions and handle them
well; others won't. It won't take you too long to figure out which
type you're dealing with. If you get one of the small minority
of professors who are unresponsive or hostile to questions, don't
push it. Go on to alternative sources. Even with the cooperative
ones, don't spend too much time in class asking questions. Some
lecturers get irritable if they have to deviate too much from
their lesson plan. Ask them during their office hours instead.
If something puzzles you and several classmates, try going as
a group to the instructor. Most instructors will appreciate it--it
cuts down on the number of times they have to go over the same
Caution, however. Even instructors who genuinely want to help,
and welcome questions, will get testy if they think you are trying
to get them to do your homework for you. Make it a rule never
to ask your instructor for help on a problem until you have made
a serious effort to solve it by yourself. When you ask, be prepared
to show in detail what you tried and how far you got. Bring in
your flow charts and schematics and calculations, including the
ones that didn't work. The more thorough you are about what you
did, the more likely you are to get the help you want.
Actually read your course text
Some texts that cover theoretical material try to explain its
importance, describing real-world behavior that the theory explains
and problems it can be used to solve. Students often ignore those
parts of the book and just search through the examples for clues
about how to solve the homework problems. It may be, though, that
parts you skip contain points that would make both the theory
and its applications clear to you. Look for them. It may also
help to glance ahead in the book when something confuses you to
see how it will be applied later.
Look for other references
If you need real-world examples and applications to make abstract
concepts clear and you have a theory-oriented instructor and text,
you'll probably have trouble with the class. If the lectures and
course text are mainly collections of facts and formulas and you
need meanings and connections for material to make sense, you
may have equal difficulty. In either case, find other references
on the same subject--other textbooks, handbooks, even encyclopedias--and
look over their explanations of the points that confuse you. If
you want worked-out examples in a subject for which a Schaum's
Outline exists, get the Outline and use it. Even if you can't
find a reference with exactly the type of coverage that works
best for you, just reading about the same topic in two different
places usually clarifies the ideas.
Work with others
When you work alone and get stuck on something, you may be tempted to give up; when you're working in a group, someone usually can find a way over the hurdle so the work can proceed. Group work also exposes you to alternative ways to solve problems that may be more effective or efficient than your way. Moreover, students routinely teach one another in group work--and as any professor will tell you, teaching something is probably the most effective way to learn it.
A wealth of educational research supports the effectiveness of
collaborative learning. Students who consistently work together
on problems in study groups and, when permitted, homework groups,
get higher grades, retain what they learn longer, enjoy classes
more, and gain more self-confidence than students who only work
individually and competitively.6 Industry is well aware
of the power of collaborative work: virtually all engineering
projects are done by teams.
However, simply getting together with some friends to go over
problems is not enough to get the full benefit of the team approach.
Here are some ideas for making collaborative learning effective.
When all else fails, consult experts
Sometimes you'll encounter a problem that neither you nor your
group partners can figure out, even after reading the text and
checking out other references. When practicing engineers run into
such problems (as they all do occasionally), they consult experts.
You also have experts available to you--the trick is to find out
who they are and to use them wisely. Your course instructor is
an obvious candidate, but that option doesn't always work out.
Other potential consultants include the graduate teaching assistant(s)
for the course, professors other than your instructor--especially
those who sometimes teach the same course, graduate students,
undergraduates who have previously taken the course, and bright
If you're fortunate enough to find people willing to help you,
don't abuse their generosity by running to them with every problem.
They have their own work to do, and spending hours every week
helping you will get old to them very quickly. Go to them only
occasionally, and only after you've tried everything else recommended
here. If you need help in a course on a regular basis, arrange
for a tutor. Your college or department may have a program that
will find one for you, or you may need to find and pay one independently.
If you seek tutoring, do it early enough to get meaningful help.
Waiting until two days before the final exam will probably get
When you go to work as an engineer, you won't have lectures to
provide information on how to solve your assigned problems, but
will be pretty much on your own. It is to your advantage to start
functioning that way while you're still in school. Figure out
what you need to make course material clearer--practical applications
of theories and formulas, for example, or worked-out examples
of computational procedures--and try to get it. Ask your course
instructor, in or out of class. Look for helpful material in your
course text, in other texts on the same subject, and in references
like handbooks and encyclopedias. Study for tests and (if permitted)
work on homework in groups, following the guidelines given in
this paper for making group work effective. When all else fails,
occasionally consult experts or arrange for tutoring in courses
in which you regularly need help. These practices will improve
your performance in college courses and in your professional career.
More importantly, they will enable you to keep learning effectively
for the rest of your life.