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. Langerdefines 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”:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

[1] Langer, E. J. (2000) “Mindful Learning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9 (6), 220-223.