Instructor Insights

Tailoring the Course to Students' Needs

In this section, Dr. Short describes one of the unusual challenges of teaching a course like 22.033: the topics students most needed to learn couldn’t be planned in advance, but instead emerged throughout the semester, making it impossible to plan what he would teach more than a week ahead of time. He then gives some examples of methods he employed to address this challenge.

"I had to constantly figure out what they’d done, where they were going, how to best guide them, which questions to actually answer, and which questions would simply push them in the right direction."
– Dr. Short

Each year’s project is different, so each class’s instructor pretty much has to start from scratch. There’s an enormous amount of preparation involved. In designing the problem, I gave the students just enough constraints that they wouldn’t be standing in a wide open field asking, “Where do I go now?” With such an open-ended problem came open-ended questions and open-ended solutions.

I learned very quickly that I couldn’t even prepare a week ahead of time for this course. I started by spending 20 hours preparing 2 hours of lectures ahead of time, for the first few weeks. By the time class came around, the students would have gone down a different path and had questions on something else. Sometimes students would ask things that I would not expect at all. I learned to prepare two days ahead of time and respond to the students’ requirements. I had to constantly figure out what they’d done, where they were going, how to best guide them, which questions to actually answer, and which questions would simply push them in the right direction. I pretty much prepared myself to meet the needs of the students as they evolved.

Strategies to Learn About Individual Students

Throughout the semester, I used several strategies to learn about each of my 17 students’ individual backgrounds, goals, and needs. This understanding enabled me to tailor the course to meet students’ evolving needs.

Some strategies I used include

  • Individual meetings. We scheduled individual meetings so that I could get to know every student on a personal level. I felt that was required. If I was going to fill in the gaps in my students’ knowledge, and I was going to help them become more effective engineers in the ways they wanted to be, then I needed to know about them. Why were they in engineering? Why were they taking the course? Why did they choose nuclear engineering? What did they want to do in life? Then, I could tailor the instruction for each student within the frame of reference of what they wanted to get out of the course and out of their education.
  • Journals. Individual journal communications were essential. Through the journals, I got to know every student’s writing style. I got to know which parts of the problem they understood well and which parts they didn’t understand as well, and I got to work with them to tackle their individual issues.
  • Ongoing communication. I kept in constant contact with my students. I frequently e-mailed them with previews and follow-ups on class discussions, ideas, reminders, and updates (see a sample of course announcements). I gave the students my cell phone number and they could text me with questions and ideas. Likewise, if I thought of something to solve their problem and it was Saturday night, I could just text them if they’d given me their number.

Preparing Lectures

A lot of my lecture preparation time was spent sitting upside down on the couch at home, thinking, “What am I going to tell these kids in a couple of days?” or, sometimes, in 12 hours. A lot of times, it just takes a lot of thinking. You’ve got to think through, okay, where are they now? Where were they a week ago? A month ago? Where do I want them to be in 24 hours? In a week? In a month? So I’d say half my time was spent sitting and thinking, jotting down notes on paper, crumpling them up, and throwing them over my shoulder.

Most of the rest of my time was spent on preparing lecture notes or class examples to work through. So that would be actually creating a problem, solving it in an instructive manner, and thinking about how I could explain every little piece in every step. And a lot of time actually goes into preparing the slides. I’ve had a number of courses as a student where I couldn’t focus on the material because it felt like the instructor didn’t think twice about his slides. I spent a lot of time crafting the slides to make sure the students could focus on the material and not on the way they were presented. My wife helped me a ton with visual impact and organization, too.

I’ve experienced this same sort of dynamic nature in the start-up companies that I’ve been involved in, where everything changes day by day, and you can make a 180 degree turn at the end. If you find a mistake in your design, you have to propagate it through. While teaching this course was undoubtedly demanding, it was also exhilarating. I love doing design, and I love teaching design. The dynamic nature of the course really added to the excitement of teaching it. I loved helping students understand topics and figuring out new ways to teach things on the fly.

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