Geoffrey Herman

Research and Reform: Creating change in engineering and computer science education

Teaching Philosophy

For me, teaching is the natural culmination of learning. Whenever I learn something, I want others to learn it too. I am fascinated by the human mind, impressed by it’s abilities and intrigued by the puzzle of how people think. I am thus committed to developing and employing evidence-based instructional practices into my classroom based on my best understanding of human cognition and motivation.

As this natural love for teaching has been complemented by my research, I have become passionate about promoting two things: students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and their development of coherent disciplinary conceptual frameworks. When students develop a coherent disciplinary conceptual framework, they can learn new concepts faster and better apply their knowledge to new situations. When students are properly motivated, they learn more and are more willingly to think deeply. These two goals mutually support each other and powerfully accelerate learning.

To improve my teaching, I make decisions through my own conceptual framework for good teaching and learning: Learning and intrinsic motivation are promoted when students have a strong sense of purpose, autonomy, and competence. As a teacher I must communicate and articulate the disciplinary purpose for why students must learn the course content, but this disciplinary purpose must also intersect my students’ personal purposes for learning. I structure my courses to give students the autonomy to discover and explore their personal purpose within the discipline by presenting them with carefully considered choices. I then support these choices with course structures that give my students a sense of competence and a belief that they can succeed.

Finding the intersection of disciplinary and personal purpose

At its core, each discipline is built upon a core conceptual framework: Classical mechanics is built upon Newton’s laws and economics is built upon opportunity cost. When fully understood, these frameworks irreversibly change the way students understand a discipline and even affect the way they view the world. Additionally, when students understand these frameworks, they gain a powerful tool to organize the rest of their learning in that discipline. In every course, I teach seek to identify these frameworks that define the purpose of the discipline and structure the whole course around these frameworks. For example in the computing courses I teach, I believe that state is a core concept that can powerfully organize students’ knowledge of the field. In my computer architecture course, I teach that everything a computer can do can be described with two tasks: storing state and manipulating state through computation. Everything in the course is tied to these two tasks.

Each discipline also promotes certain habits of mind. In order to develop the mind of an engineer, students must learn to think analytically by interpreting project requirements, decomposing problems into manageable parts, and assessing the quality of their final product. To teach analytical thinking, I model it in class and give students time to practice it: I speak my thought processes aloud without skipping steps, have students explain their reasoning to others in small groups, and require that students document their solution strategies when solving homework problems.

By setting a clear disciplinary purpose that is bounded by the conceptual framework and the habits of mind, I am able to strategically decide what content to include in the course and avoid the temptation to “cover the material.” In my introductory computing courses, I am ecstatic if my students understand the pervasive nature of state in computing, because I know that I have equipped them for careers in not only computing, but also signal processing, control theory, systems engineering, and many other engineering disciplines. Because I establish a strong disciplinary purpose for the classroom, I can create meaningful bounds for what activities will promote students’ pursuit of disciplinary expertise. However, these bounds are not oppressive, but they can actually provide more opportunities for students to discover how their personal values and purposes align with the discipline.

Purpose and autonomy

Students can discover how their personal values align with the discipline and discover their intrinsic motivation to learn, only if they are given a degree of autonomy to explore the discipline on their own terms. This exploration requires that students be presented with choices to choose the what, why, and how they learn while being constructively bounded by the clearly defined disciplinary purpose. For example, in my computing courses, I want my students to understand state and its centrality to computing, but I am less concerned about the exact contexts of their learning. When one group of students was concerned about sustainability and the environment, I let them focus on how the design of state machines and digital circuits can be optimized to minimize power consumption. When another group was more interested in designing new computer architectures, I let that group focus on designing new state machines with practical specifications. Both groups of students learned about the importance of state, but they also were allowed to embrace their personal purposes.

Through classroom mechanisms such as peer-review, online tutorials, and collaborative learning, I can provide students with the choices to pursue these different learning goals and activities. This freedom to pursue personal purpose has motivated my students to pursue projects that far exceeded the scope of the standard syllabus and become more interested in remaining in computing. For example in my theory-focused digital logic class, I have had a team teach themselves hardware description languages to program Field-Programmable Gate Arrays, digital to analog conversion, and voltage divider circuits, just so that they could learn how to control physical devices with digital technology.

Autonomy, structure, and a sense of competence

As I increase my students’ autonomy to choose what, why, and how they learn, I can further promote my students’ intrinsic motivation by providing the classroom structures that positively support and bound their autonomy. For example, I let my students negotiate what topics and types of assignments will be included in the syllabus of my courses. I support this autonomy, by providing structure for the negotiations: I explain why certain topics or activities are non-negotiable according to my disciplinary purpose, but I give students the autonomy to choose purpose-driven optional topics and activities. I explain how these optional topics or activities support the disciplinary purpose and can support different personal purposes. I also provide clearly defined rubrics and grading schemes that not only assess my students’ learning, but also reinforce the disciplinary purpose. These clearly defined course structures provide students with a sense of competence (a sense of their ability to succeed) in a classroom environment that is often radically different from their other courses.

To further support each students’ sense of competence, I never grade on a curve. I set clear expectations of what abilities students need to demonstrate, and I communicate that each student can exceed my expectations. Because I want my students to fully realize their autonomy as self-directed learners, I emphasize questioning techniques rather than presenting information directly. Finally, I emphasize team-based learning and teach students how to create effective teams. While students often feel uncertain when pursuing goals by themselves, effective learning teams can increase self-efficacy and enable students to learn more and accomplish more during their learning activities.

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The three central goals of promoting students’ purpose, autonomy, and competence will improve my students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and help them develop those key conceptual frameworks that can make them effective engineers, leading my students to become the self-directed learners that will become the researchers and innovators that can change the world.