If you’ve earned a degree in engineering, then you know the frustration of trying to comprehend maddeningly complex course material.
That frustration may be partially responsible for the poor showing of engineering schools in a recent survey conducted by The Princeton Review. The survey, one of many done by the organization, asked college students a simple question: “Are your instructors good teachers?”
The results, published in the 2014 edition of The Princeton Review’s The Best 378 Colleges, didn’t show engineering professors in a good light. Engineering schools -- including Georgia Tech, Cal Tech, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Stevens Institute, and the US Merchant Marine Academy -- made up five of the worst seven in a category called “Professors Get Low Marks.” Three more appeared in the bottom 20. That’s particularly telling, when you consider that just 26 of the book’s “best 378” could be considered engineering colleges.
To be sure, some of those results are inevitably tied to the complexity of the course material. Every year, engineering schools dominate a Princeton Review survey question about students’ numbers of out-of-class study hours. This year, eight engineering colleges (including the top two) landed in a category called “Students Study the Most.” Conversely, no engineering schools were named in a category called, “Students Study the Least.”
Still, there’s a growing belief that engineering schools and their professors could do better in many cases. “The results of the (Princeton Review) survey don’t surprise me at all,” David Cole, chairman emeritus for the Center for Automotive Research and a former mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan, told Design News. “You’re going to find some wonderful educators in engineering and you’re going to find some who are not good at all.”
Cole cited several possible reasons for the poor showing of engineering profs. Some engineering professors are quantitative thinkers who relate better to ideas than to people. Others suffer from problems with the language and culture. Today, it’s estimated that more than half of the PhD.-level engineering instructors come from other countries. Moreover, many engineering profs are narrowly oriented toward their own area of research, and may not be enthusiastic about teaching broad introductory courses, Cole said.
”In academic environments today, the rewards tend to be oriented toward research, and not teaching,” Cole told us.
Disinterested instructors are especially problematic for first-year engineering students, who tend to be in greater need of context. “Too often, students don’t understand the relevance of the material, particularly in the first couple of years,” Ray Almgren, a vice president of marketing at National Instruments who is working with universities to shore up engineering education in the US, told us. “They tend to get bombarded with theory during those years, without any explanation of the relevance.”
Almgren said that engineering profs deserve some leeway in these matters, largely because the course material can be so time-consuming and difficult, especially for young students. Still, he said, colleges need to be more attentive to the learning needs of students. ”Hard is fine,” Almgren told us. “But we also want them to find their classes interesting.”