What Makes a Great Engineering Lecturer?

Photobucket: Faryal the lecturer *

Is it possible to be a good researcher and lecturer at the same time?

Have you ever had a really good teacher or lecturer who has just made a subject interesting, applicable and even a bit fun? I hope so, because an exceptional lecturer is a rare breed, it seems. I guess that's why they're exceptional! And this is particularly true of engineering at the University of Western Australia (UWA). UWA is a research university, meaning that any given engineering lecturer is also juggling various research projects, and for some lecturers, have up to 20 thesis students to supervise. This of course affects the quality of the lectures I receive as an engineering undergraduate. Can lecturers can be much older than students and still give good lectures? And what kind of things will a good engineering lecturer do to keep student interest up as well as ensure their content is being understood? Are there character traits that are needed, too? Indeed. And presumably many characteristics of an excellent engineering lecturer will overlap with those of an excellent science, arts or music lecturer. I'm going to tell you a bit about my own uni experience of lecturers, as well as briefly comment on some elements of good lecturing.

Vague and boring?

In one sense, I would say that engineering lecturers' research actually enriches their lectures, as they can enthuse about their research work. However, it can mean that a lecturer is in his or her own world, and so are vague or simply boring when presenting talks. It can also mean that we end up with lecturers who are endearingly quirky. I wonder sometimes whether some lecturers just view their class presentations as necessary inconveniences, which are stopping them from getting more research done. But I think that is a fairly rare attitude. Usually, my lecturers have been both approachable and helpful. Nevertheless, research lecturer often have the problem of forgetting the difficulties they themselves faced when they were learning the same content a while ago in their undergraduate degrees. And so they explain concepts either in an academic, dense way or simply in insufficient detail with an assumption that the concept is fairly obvious. But we engineering students thrive on examples when learning new formulas, and yet lecturers often give surprisingly few illustrations on how to apply those weird-looking math equations. Those valuable examples are usually shown later in the smaller tutors run by PhD students or upper-year students, thus making tutorials the place where much of our deep learning happens.

Making the numbers come to life

I'm just reflecting on all the lecturers I've had throughout my engineering degree. My lecturers have ranged from about 35 y.o. to about 75 y.o, mostly in their forties, I think. I've had excellent lectures from both the younger and older academics. According to my recollection, I've had 31 male lecturers and about four female lecturers. I've had one German, at least three Poles, two Malaysians (I think), one Mauritian, one Italian, one Swede, one Bulgarian and over 20 Australian lecturers. Each one has had their own unique sense of humour, personality and teaching style. The level of spoken English has been a limiting factor for some of my lecturers, but usually they get around this by explaining content in another way, having good powerpoint slides or having good lecture handouts. Sometimes it's just a bit too difficult for them, and so then students need to spend extra time working by themselves to understand the content. This can be quite time-consuming. Interestingly, there are some cultural trends in humour (eg. the Polish lecturers often have a cynical or sarcastic sense of humour) and style (eg. overall, the Australian teachers seemed to give more examples in lectures). Two of my female lecturers were Electrical Engineers turned lecturers, while the other two women were from the School of Mechanical Engineering.

Two big factors: Enthusiasm and Experience?

Two big factors overall in the teaching quality of lecturers I've been under from 2007 to 2012 have been simply their lecturing experience for their units as well as their personal enthusiasm for teaching. As their confidence and familiarity with their lecture slides and notes has increased of the years, the smoothness of their presentation and clarity of their explanations have doubtless improved. Also, as the lecturer receives feedback from previous students, they can expand on their previous explanations and powerpoints. But all this is negatively affected if the lecturer isn't enthusiastic. Some lecturers I've had seemed to be counting the places they'd rather be. This isn't lost on the students. If lecturers don't want to be there, then students don't either. What a surprise! On the flip side, if a lecturer like Cosimo Faiello is enthusiastic about their  topic, even about one as mundane as Project Engineering Practice, then that can motivate and interest students to study more and take greater ownership of their learning. Cosi, as the Italian lecturer asks us to call him, not only exudes energy and enthusiasm about his course, but he also uses personal stories to back-up his points. Of course, this isn't easy to do with most engineering units, but it does indicate that stories do really help in engaging audiences and placing info in context.

Researching and teaching: not the easiest juggling act

So what makes a good engineering lecturer? They need to be approachable. They'll make sure that their lecture slides, handouts and comments in their lectures address questions that students are asking. They'll often talk about their research or tell stories to help students get a picture of how a principle will work in the real world, as well as to make a talk more interesting. Generally, by being themselves, as research academics, they can be quite entertaining. I really treasure the good teachers I've had a uni, and I recognise the challenges of being a good engineering lecturer (or a good lecturer in anything, really).


*Faryal (pictured) isn't one of my lecturers, he was just included so I could have a lecturer-looking picture. Actually, it's very rare at UWA for an engineering lecturer to be wearing a tie when lecturing. 

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