Interactive Teaching: Way forward for Engineering Education

Posted on April 25, 2017


Author:  Sanjay Goel


Various government and industry agencies have been increasingly expressing their concern about industry readiness and employability of Indian engineers. A recent report by Times of India mentioned that 60% engineers are unemployed or underemployed. Poor quality of the engineering education has been identified as the main reason for this situation. Because of two main factors, there is now an urgent need to fundamentally transform the engineering education.  First, with increasing sophistication and automation in the industry, the engineering workplace activities, including their objectives, success criteria, constraints, tools, and human roles, are changing rapidly and the future nature of these activities is beyond anybody’s imagination. Second, more scientific information has been produced in the last 20 years than in the previous 5000 years and by the year 2020, it is likely to double every 73 days. Hence, it is now impossible to impart all the required technical knowledge and skills to new graduates through their formal education programs. Merrill has posited that ‘Information is not Instruction.’ Further, an easy accessibility of online courses and MOOCs are increasing the choices of the motivated students.   However, our education processes, especially the class-room teaching can be transformed to play not only a significant but also a transformative role by focussing on developing the required habits of mind of future engineers and managers.  Here it is important to note that with case-based teaching, the management education at many places has already undergone such a transformation.

Lecture, as the main method of teaching, evolved when information transfer was believed to be as one of the most important goals of education. In the pre-internet era, conventional lectures were possibly one of the more effective means of information transfer. Today, the core objective of the engineering education is not limited to imparting the technical knowledge and developing the problem solving, analysis, design skills but also to enhance creativity, problem defining and systems thinking among the students. The teaching methods like conventional lecture have been widely criticized for their poor efficacy in achieving these objectives. The development of these traits requires everyday practice. Hence, the teaching methods need to be transformed in order to give guided practice to our students through everyday educational engagements like lectures.

Educational research has shown that the retention rates of the learned material after few days of the pedagogical engagement depend upon the nature of the pedagogical engagement.  The following list gives a brief summary of some findings about the retention rates:

  • 10% What we read
  • 15-30% What we see
  • 20-50% What we see and hear
  • 20-30% What we hear
  • 30% Demonstration
  • 40-70% Discuss with others
  • 70% Say or Write
  • 75% Practice by Doing
  • 80% What we experience directly or practice doing
  • 90% Say as they do a thing
  • 90-95% Teach to others/Immediate Use

The conventional lecture, where there is very little interaction between the teacher and the students, has been found to be one of the least effective methods of pedagogical engagement. The main reason for conventional lecture’s poor performance in terms of students’ learning is that the human mind starts losing its attention very early in the conventionally administered lecture classes and after 10 minutes it is very difficult for most students to remain fully attentive. The students need some stimulus after every 10 minutes or so to periodically boost up their attention.    In the contemporary higher education, there is an enhanced interest in the interactive approaches to teaching and learning that seek to frequently and continuously provide such stimuli in a lecture class.

A common definition of interactive teaching is – “Interactive teaching is a means of instructing whereby the teachers actively involve the students in their learning process by way of regular teacher-student interaction, student-student interaction, use of audio-visuals, and hands-on demonstrations. The students are constantly encouraged to be active participants.”  Wrt to the professional education, the interactive methods of teaching and learning have been recognized to benefit in many ways – “…interactive methods encourage interest in the profession; promote the efficient acquisition of training materials; form patterns of conduct; provide high motivation, strength, knowledge, team spirit and freedom of expression; and most importantly, contribute to the complex competences of future specialists…” At the core of these approaches is the educational philosophy that humans learn because of their multidimensional engagements and many of these engagements take place in a social setting.  Intense and diversified academic and professional interactions can stimulate the students’ active, reflective, integrative, and collaborative engagements at deeper levels.

The main dimensions of educational interactions wrt higher education are as follows:

  1. Student-faculty interaction
  2. Student-student interaction
  3. Students-industry interaction
  4. Student-community interaction

Student–faculty, and student–student interactions inside the classes are the core of these interactions.  With the increasing interest of the parents in their ward’s higher education, there is also an increasing space for Faculty-parent interaction. A proper mix of the following approaches can be used to facilitate the above interactions:

  1. Face to face interactions inside as well as outside classes
  2. ICT enabled interactions inside as well as outside classes

To facilitate these interactions inside the classes in large classes is often a more serious challenge for most teachers than to do so in small classes.  However, just avoiding large lecture and holding tutorial classes does not automatically increase the interactions unless the faculty is able to make use of the reduced size to increase in-class and out-of-class students-faculty and student-student interactions.  Following video recordings available on Youtube are excellent demonstrations of interactive classes.

  1. Eric Mazur, Physics, Harvard:
  2. Richard Felder, Chem Engg. UNC:

In literature, several techniques have been presented for facilitating such interactions. All of the in-class techniques suggest different ways of increasing student activity and interaction in the class. Only a selected few of these techniques are listed below:

  1. Recall, Summarize, Question, Connect, and Comment: The teacher starts the lecture by reinforcing the previous session’s material through five steps: recall it, summarize it, phrase a remaining question, connect it to the class as a whole, and comment on that class session.
  2. One-minute paper: During or towards the end of the class, the teacher asks the students to write for one minute on a specific question (which may even be “what was the most important thing you learned today”). Muddiest Point is a variant of this form in which the students are asked to write the “most confusing” point. The teacher may collect their papers for consolidation/resolution in the same or in the next class.
  3. Problem/dilemma posing: The teacher poses a problem/dilemma and asks the students to solve/resolve it.  The students give different responses and teacher contributes through clues and finally consolidates/refines/generalizes their responses.  More motivated teachers have a choice to take this method to the extreme by starting the lecture by posing some problem/dilemma and teach the concepts inductively rather than first explaining the theoretical concepts and later demonstrating the problem-solving deductively. In the inductive approach, a problem/dilemma acts like the initial seed that evolves into the specific solution and also generic concepts through student responses, group work, and teacher’s consolidation and refinement that is followed by a further seed.  In educational literature, such approaches are classified as Inquiry-based teaching or Problem-based teaching methods.  Seed-Evolve-Reseed-Outcome ( ) is a variant of this form.
  4. Think-Pair-Share: Problem/dilemma posing can be further enriched by this technique in which students are asked to share and compare their responses with a partner before addressing the larger class. After a pair-share experience, students can be asked to find a new partner to further discuss the issue/problem by first sharing the result of the old partnership to this new partner.
  5. Flipped Classroom: This is the extreme form of learner-centered interactive teaching, in which the teacher announces the reading material and students read the material before the class. The class time is used for discussion, clarification, brainstorming, debates, and problem-solving.

Wrt the out-of-class interactions, in addition to the group projects, the following technique can be used for enhancing out-of-class student-student interactions:

  1. Peer Review Writing Task – Teachers often give writing assignments. To assist students with a writing assignment, teachers can encourage them to exchange drafts with a partner. The partner reads the work and writes a structured review. The teachers are expected to announce the format of this review.

Further, several IT services are available to increase such interaction even outside the class. Learning Management Systems, Online communities, Facebook groups, Whatsapp groups, Twitter communities, Online chat, etc., can be used by the motivated teachers for complimenting their courses.

Finally, the motivated teachers can not only use, adapt and integrate more than one of these techniques but also invent more such techniques for in-class as well as out-of-class interactions.




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