We often discuss pedagogy in terms of curriculum reform, teaching and learning styles, etc. without addressing the classroom environment in a social context. Petroski8 reflects on the deteriorating behavior of students in classrooms. An engaging learning environment must first have mutual respect between the teacher, students, and student assistants. The author has been approached on numerous occasions for advice on controlling classrooms, especially during the past five years or so. The following are few anecdotal tools and techniques to maintain appropriate conduct in the classroom:
Outline all rules, expectations, and goals in the syllabus and take the time to go over the details in the first class. Then stick to this “contract.”
Learn the students’ names as quickly as possible and address them with Mr. or Ms.—no first names. Students view this as a sign of respect and it establishes a level of formality that both they and the teacher appreciate. This “friendly formality” emphasizes that the teacher is in charge and that the students have the teacher’s respect in return. Many students have commented that they appreciate this show of respect and even more have commented that they appreciate that a professor has taken the time to learn their name.
Openly discuss ethical/nonethical behavior. Make students aware of the consequences of unethical behavior in the classroom, in the workplace, and in society in general. If their behavior is unacceptable, let them know and enforce the appropriate consequences.
Require attendance—indirectly. Graded in-class activities, such as unit quizzes (discussed later), group exercises, etc., encourage attendance. Peer pressure and general enjoyment of an interactive classroom also contribute to low absenteeism.
The late-assignment trial allows the students to enforce their own late-assignment policy. Assignments are due at the beginning of class. Late students must come to the front of the class and state their reason for tardiness. The class then votes by show of hands to decide if the teacher should accept the assignment. This policy puts the fairness issue completely in the hands of the students—the teacher does not have to deal with enforcing a late-assignment policy.
A couple of additional tools that prove useful for keeping students informed and prepared are:
The e-mail update and class log, in addition to a class website, are very effective tools keeping students informed. After each class, e-mail a summary of the class activities emphasizing and reinforcing the key ideas and concepts. (This should be done as soon after class as possible and should not take more than 10-15 minutes of your time.) Also, a list of assignments, with due dates and reminders can be included in the e-mail, even if this information is also on the class website. Students feel as though the instructor is talking directly to them. The updates are copied to the class log, a file that presents a continuous documentation of daily events. This day-by-day record is a valuable assessment tool.
The question of the day keeps mathematics and basic science integrated with engineering in the minds of the students. These are usually timely questions that may, or may not, be directly related to the primary discussion topic. Repeated reference to mathematical and scientific concepts helps students continuously integrate conceptual and operational knowledge from requisite science and math courses.
The proactive approach ensures that students enter the classroom prepared to learn and it optimizes faculty-student and student-student interaction. As stated, students often do not prepare for in-class learning, even when it is in their best interest. Most students, however, will prepare if there is an immediate negative consequence for lack of preparation. Often they are more responsive avoiding negative consequences than they are at seeking positive outcomes. The timing of the negative consequence is much more important than its magnitude. This is the philosophy of the unit quiz, a primary instrument used to emphasize and measure conceptual knowledge. The unit quiz is particularly effective in the engineering science courses that may emphasize operational knowledge at the expense of conceptual knowledge.