Reaching out to all students
The greatest pedagogical challenge is to reach out to all students. The roads to learning are many and, moreover, the differences between students’ backgrounds have grown greater in recent years. This is the view of Associate Professor Stefan Hallström, who received the pedagogical award from KTH Royal Institute of Technology recently for his long-term efforts to raise the quality of the engineering degree programmes.
Some students learn better in groups, others study preferably by themselves. Certain students find it easier to assimilate theoretical arguments while others prefer practical examples.
“There is no single effective way to teach. So it’s essential to be able to offer different paths to learning,” Hallström says. Since student groups are large and more heterogeneous than before, this has become an ever greater challenge, he says.
Hallström is one of the pioneers behind the pedagogical model CDIO (Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate). He and his colleague, Jakob Kuttenkeuler, were the first in the world to use and develop the new concepts in a course for the Master of Science in Engineering programme, Vehicle and Maritime Engineering. Today, the CDIO work is ongoing within all degree programmes at KTH and the international network covers more than 100 universities.
“It’s quite clear that this is a model that really works. With my own students I can see an improvement in their skills compared with 10 years ago. They show that they have a command of engineering. They don’t just recite what appears in the textbooks but are able to translate the knowledge into practice at a high level,” he says.
Keeping the flame alive
That observation is supported by feedback from companies that have recruited “his” engineers, testifying to the fact that those recently graduated immediately enter the organisation’s operations, take decisions quickly, become productive and are self-reliant.
“Their work as engineers is fantastic – can we please have more?” they say.
A further confirmation of Hallström’s success in teaching was KTH’s pedagogical prize, which he was awarded in December 2013.
“It’s great to receive such encouragement for what’s been achieved in one’s teaching. It was an overwhelming experience, particularly with all the congratulations and backslapping from my colleagues,” he says.
The pedagogical principles at the top of his agenda are to “activate and involve” the students, in other words to induce the students to find their own motivation to tackle their engineering studies.
“Once they are motivated, things will flow automatically. They simply cannot avoid doing a good job. Then it’s just a question of the teacher keeping the flame alive.”
But how does one motivate them from the start?
“By showing enthusiasm as a teacher; the spirit that says – look at this, it’s cool that one can work this one out. Dedication to – and demonstrated interest in – the topic are infectious for the students,” Hallström says.
He recalls that as a student he met a researcher who was publicly defending a doctoral thesis on the subject of ”crack propagation” (fracture mechanics). He wondered, ‘How can one devote four years of one’s life to such an obscure subject?’.
“But, six or seven years later, I myself had presented a thesis within the same field, fracture mechanics,” he says. “It has been shown to me that something which, to begin with, may sound rather absurd, becomes really interesting when one understands the context. This is the case with most subjects where, as a student, one is driven by curiosity.”
Argument about throughput rate
Ever since he began working as a teacher at KTH, at the end of the 1990’s, the issue of educational quality has been one he has felt strongly about. Today, however, he is concerned lest the financial parameters for the engineering degrees risk damaging the quality.
“A higher throughput rate has become the order of the day in recent years. But to put so much emphasis on this risks defeating its purpose,” he says.
Hallström maintains that there are very limited possibilities of increasing the throughput of students, without lowering the standards of their performance.
“It’s clear that pedagogical skills also play a role here. We can certainly help students to raise their game,” he says. But he sounds a note of caution. “There’s a limit to what one can do as teacher – we are unable to repair underlying knowledge gaps from earlier schooling and we cannot do the job for those who do not wish to do it themselves.”
He seeks an open discussion about how throughput rates at university, and the quality of the education provided, relate to one another.
“We need to ask the question if we are perhaps taking in too many students at KTH or whether we set too low entry requirements. I would like to see a minimum knowledge requirement to be admitted as a student.”