The Mindless Undergrad
My undergraduate engineering education appears blurry at best, and it wasn’t until graduate school that I felt like I was learning and was being mindful about it. Langer1 defines mindful learning as being able to “draw novel distinctions” so that we are more sensitive to “context and perspective.” In engineering education, I think we could further specify mindful learning as being aware of context, limitations and implications (of theories, frameworks, systems, designs). As a simple example, when confronted with an equation, a mindful way of learning would be understanding the assumptions and limitations inherent in the math, and the context in which this equation could be suitably applied.
This topic of mindful learning is near and dear to me, because I felt like I wasted four precious, irreversible years not learning as much as I could have. There was a number of reasons for the so called “mindlessness”:
- While I agree with Langer that the term “basics” may not be applicable to everyone, I do think there are fundamental concepts in engineering that should be learned as the necessary prerequisite to more advanced material. Some examples include the equation of motion, static analysis, etc. For this reason, the engineering curriculum was understandably mostly content driven. However, these fundamentals were delivered on a problem-by-problem format that screamed “this is how and where you apply this formula” and often with little relevancy to real life problem solving. Students learned to solve these individual problems by following established procedures, and would do so repeatedly for a number of similar questions, but would they be able to apply these concepts in a foreign setting in which the problem scope was not clearly defined?
- It was difficult to be a mindful learner under stress and sleep deprivation. In the Canadian education system where I went through undergraduate, it was normal (mandatory) to have 6 or 7 courses per semester in which lectures, tutorials and labs took up 35-45 hours per week. This did not include the time it took to complete assignments, projects and studying for tests. Under bombardment of course content and time constraint, students often chose the easiest route that would maximize their grades. It became a game of guessing what will be covered on the test, and memorizing key solutions so as to get by. I didn’t think there was enough time (and I didn’t have the energy) to truly absorb the material, let alone to reflect and extrapolate. The mentality was simply “to get things done.” While I might come off as complaining, I honestly did not think that overloading students was truly conducive to learning. What further perplexed me was that the heavy curriculum had to physically take place on campus even though the majority of students commuted an hour or more to school (one way). Was it a wonder that early morning and late evening classes were mostly empty? Perhaps the one thing I did learn from undergraduate studies was time management.
- Do we place enough faith in our undergraduate students? I hesitate to answer, because in my own experience, the better learning material had always seemed to be reserved for the graduate students. By “better,” I mean the presentation of material with qualifying statements, with all its uncertainties, and not simplified so that it was only correct…for the time being. (You will learn the real thing in graduate school!) There are of course benefits to simplifying certain concepts in introductory courses, but I think instructors should be responsible for framing the concepts in a way that allows room for discussion, questioning, and exploration of the open ended aspects. I often hear professors say that “it’s too hard” for the undergraduates and that “they won’t get it.” Is it fair to place limitations on the students’ intellectual development without even giving them a chance?
It is impossible to turn back time, and I am pretty sure I would not want to suffer through the same delivery of that curriculum again. I apologize if this entire post seems like an angry diatribe. I can only hope to draw from my own experiences as a student and move forward as a teacher. If engineering education needs to be content driven, then perhaps it is only logical to explore various methods of content delivery. As I was writing the second point about balancing time, travel and workload, it occurred to me that uploading lectures online, such as in video format, and allowing students to learn the material whenever, wherever, however, might be more suitable for a student population that is geographically dispersed. I would be interested to hear about your experiences as a mindless/mindful student.
 Langer, E. J. (2000) “Mindful Learning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9 (6), 220-223.
September 17, 2017 @ 7:02 pm
I think this topic is hotly debated among those who are interested in pedagogy. On one hand you have students who are struggling to keep up, in the other, you have students who need more challenges to keep them motivated.
I think it is great that you have openly discussed both sides equally well. I myself, if I had the power, would encourage all those who are seeking education as their vocation to continuously communicate and challenge their students based on their individual capabilities and abilities.
I was fortunate enough to study under such lecturers and teachers and I could honestly say it has helped me understand subjects far better than my colleagues in other classrooms.
September 18, 2017 @ 3:50 pm
Hi Grace, I really enjoyed reading your post. I agree that there is such thing as the basic, not just for applied science, but also natural science. I have heard my physics friend spending the first year of his PhD just taking classes. Some disciplines just have higher entry points before the students can develop a self-consistent conceptual framework and be able to explore more knowledge and create new knowledge. I have read a paper about some experimenting and testing the performance difference between people with higher and lower level of domain knowledge using the example of baseball knowledge. The people with higher level of knowledge acquire and interpret information much faster than the people with lower level of knowledge. They also make better judgment and prediction of a baseball game. Therefore, in order to be mindful, the mind needs a basic conception to operate on.
I had the experience of publishing video lectures online and let the students take it anytime they prefer during the week. It is much flexible. But the problem is, if there is no follow-up quiz, they might just skip the lectures and work directly on the assignments (which seems more ugent to them).
September 19, 2017 @ 7:42 am
I really enjoyed reading your post! Thank you for sharing your experiences. They were eye-opening – especially since I’ve been married to an engineer for thirty years…a creative one. After walking through many engineering experiences with my husband, I do think it is important on some level to allow for some uncertainty, for some movement beyond “use this formula in this situation – plug and chug and you have your answer” in undergraduate engineering. I say this because of the experiences of my husband as an engineer. Developers and farmers loved him. Other engineers, not so much. Whether it was his education or just his own exploration of engineering principles or perhaps his dual major in engineering and physics, but he often thought of different “ways” to get projects done. He thought out of the standard engineering box. He looked at the environment he had to work with and often found ways to implement practices in that environment in novel ways. Interestingly enough, other engineers found it hard to follow what he was doing. In the end, he supported it all in the ways that engineers do and I don’t understand too well. And his practices endure today in places around southwest Virginia. But he remained the “odd ball out” amongst the other engineers and technicians he worked with. They often only saw one way to do something and questioned him often. I believe, I guess, that math can be used in very formulaic ways or it actually can be beautiful and creative. And in the world of engineering, it can be used to create many things “outside of the box” if just used as a tool and not a formula.
September 19, 2017 @ 12:37 pm
I enjoyed this as well! I especially appreciated your framing of a “mindful” approach to engineering education at the outset. What a contrast with the curriculum you actually experienced as an undergrad!
September 19, 2017 @ 2:21 pm
I think I was a mindful undergrad student, though it was a very stressful period for me as well. My goal was to excel all the exams, getting 99/100 for core courses at the end of semester (not kidding!). To achieve that, I aimed to doing the homework exercises three times before the exams (like structural mechanics, engineering mathematics and etc.). As a result, I remembered all the procedures for all types of problems and got good grades! Well, however, I also noticed that I forgot whatever I learned once the semester finished…. Haha Nevertheless, I don’t think I got nothing through this stressful process. Now looking back those experiences, I feel those experiences give me better stress endurance, more perseverance and patience, and even much more MINDFUL when doing research.
Posting lecture videos for students to learn in their own pace is very good idea! But I think students are generally lazy and easily getting distracted … especially undergrads. They will need a little push and pressure still.
September 19, 2017 @ 3:23 pm
I really enjoyed reading your post! And it definitely reminded me of my own undergraduate experiences and my experiences in graduate school. Your post reminded me of a project I was involved in in a statics course last year. As part of this course, students were required to write out an explanation of one of their homework problems in addition to solving several problems and coming up with numerical answers. Reading through responses was very eye-opening! In some instances, students would explain what assumptions they were making and why they were taking a particular approach. But that was often the exception. Often, students would write out: take this number and multiply it by this. Then use this equation to solve for A… and so on and so forth. I definitely agree that there are some concepts that students need in more foundational classes such as statics, but I think we as educators can do a better job explaining what is going on and why. Because in so many problems, we have to make assumptions and we have to simplify. But often students don’t realize that they are doing that and they take it as absolute. Thanks for the post!