Professor of chemical engineering education Mo Zandi and PhD student Ya He offer tips for students and teachers on how to boost learning and teaching
CHEMICAL engineering students today are dealing with an overwhelming number of distractions. With the endless influx of information and stimuli from technology and social media, combined with external pressures and stressors, it can be challenging to focus and learn effectively. The result is often disengagement and despair. To combat this, it’s crucial to understand how we learn and implement effective learning strategies.
On the opposite side of the lecture hall, those teaching chemical engineering have seen significant changes in recent years with the introduction of new techniques, including active learning, flipped classrooms, HyFlex and collaborative learning approaches. We all know teachers who have embraced these strategies but, discouraged by a lack of expected improvement in student results, have reverted to traditional “talk and chalk” techniques.
For students seeking continual improvement, we offer five tips on how to improve learning. And for the discouraged teachers among you, we provide further insights and recommendations on how to design your activities to help your students succeed.
To improve your skills and performance you need to learn, but first, you need to know how to learn. Learning takes shape through a complex process that involves various cognitive mechanisms and brain regions. Start by using your prior knowledge as a framework to understand new information. Don’t rely only on repetition. There are many resources available both in print and online, including Learning How To Learn (see TCE 981, p33). As you understand how learning is formed in your brain, you will realise the pattern for your own learning and continue to optimise learning strategies, engagement techniques, and memory retention practices. If you want to expand your understanding of learning, we recommend the book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.1
Habits take time to form, so make a daily or weekly schedule for yourself. Create a schedule that includes specific time slots for each of your learning subjects or tasks (and schedule dedicated spare time to check on social media). Make your tasks actionable by setting progress reminders and deadlines for each step. Try applying well-known techniques such as Pomodoro, which breaks down your study sessions into manageable chunks, typically 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks (typically between five and ten minutes). After a break, to help solidify what you have learned, take another 25 minutes to focus on solving relevant problems. Then relax for five minutes, irrespective of whether you got the correct answers or not.
When studying a topic, instead of relying on a single source of information, challenge yourself to identify and compare more than three sources, either physically or on the internet. This will help you to practice your information-processing skills and to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the topic. For example, you are preparing a weekly writing assignment about applying the circular economy principle to environmental engineering processes. So you need to explore methods to minimise waste generation by integrating recycling, reusing, and remanufacturing. Your first action could be to review the course materials, then search for relevant content on Google Scholar/Web of Science/Scopus, based on the topic. Perhaps you could also follow some influencers in related fields during your daily social media time. And finally, don’t forget to make good use of your university’s library resources and other professional resources such as IChemE’s Sustainability Hub2 or its publications, including the journal, Sustainable Production and Consumption.3
Participate in activities, events or clubs related to your learning interests, where you can collaborate with peers and experts who share your passions and expand your personal network. For example, attend IChemE seminars or join IChemE special interest groups4 whose fields of interest range from biochemical engineering and clean energy to sustainability and water. Even if you don’t have the option of attending in person, you can still find a way to engage online.
If you can stay focused and keep learning about a topic, you will, in some ways, become an expert on it. Now close the book, turn off your phone and laptop, and try to recall the information from your brain and summarise key concepts of the week’s learning to make your own mind map. For example, you can start by explaining the basic definition of the first law of thermodynamics to a friend who is not studying chemical engineering. Next, step outside your comfort zone and take on a bigger challenge: teach your friend how to design a heat exchanger, or simply think through how you would teach them. If you can accomplish this task, then congratulations, you have stored this knowledge firmly in your long-term memory. However, if you find it difficult, then identify areas that need improvement and solidify your understanding.
It’s vital that teachers provide training for students on how learning actually occurs and how to learn effectively. Knowing how learning takes place is crucial for enhancing performance and developing skills. By teaching students how to learn, you empower them with the tools and mindset to become independent, self-directed learners who can adapt, think critically, and continue growing throughout their lives. We recommend you read Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn.5
Research suggests that retrieval practice6 is an effective method to counteract the various distractions students face in modern life, while simultaneously improving their overall learning experience. As an example, teachers can create in-session conceptual quizzes using digital platforms such as Wooclap, Quizlet, and Kahoot. Start by designing regular conceptual quizzes or short assessments that cover the key topics or concepts in your teaching content. These quizzes should be focused on immediately recalling and applying the learned material rather than simple regurgitation. Furthermore, you can design a series of questions that first require students to explain fundamental principles, then solve practical problems, and finally analyse real-world scenarios related to the learning content. This technique involves actively recalling information from memory rather than simply rereading or rewatching material. By doing so, students can strengthen the neural connections in their brains and improve their ability to retrieve that information later. By actively engaging in analysing information and regularly testing their knowledge, the “weak” neural connections in students’ brains can gradually be built up by the instructor. This encourages their engagement in different learning activities and students can enhance their learning outcomes and develop a deeper, more durable understanding of the material. In turn, this leads to increased confidence and better performance as they have more chances to practice with what they have learned.
We need to accept and address the fact that day-to-day life distractions interfere with students’ focus and learning. The classroom is not only a place for you to teach knowledge but also to impart strategies and skills. In addition to pure technical knowledge and expertise, it is important we teach students how to create study schedules, set goals, and prioritise tasks. Teach learning strategies explicitly, such as the Pomodoro technique7 or the Cornell,8 and outline9 note-taking methods and provide opportunities for students to practice these techniques in class. You could run structured workshops on time management and study skills or help students practice breaking larger assignments into smaller, more manageable tasks. You could also provide practical tips and exercises for students on summarising information and solving problems by assigning tasks with multiple milestones and deadlines.
Encourage a growth mindset among students. Emphasise the belief that intelligence and abilities can be developed through effort, practice, and persistence. Introduce critical-thinking tasks into lesson plans, such as analysing and evaluating different sources of information, references, and literature. Moreover, teachers do not have to be the only speakers in the classroom. Invite external speakers from industry and PhD students to present case studies and real-world examples that will prompt your students to think critically and consider multiple perspectives. This will provide opportunities for students to practice analysing arguments, identify logical fallacies, and evaluate evidence.
Guide students to reflect on their learning process, strengths, and areas for improvement. Promote self-awareness, self-regulation, and independent learning. Incorporate online resources and educational apps into the course and provide recommended tools or platforms for students to study on their own, or as supplementary material outside of class. Design your interactive activities, quizzes, or games in Mentimeter, Wooclap, or Jamboard to promote more learning freedom, interactive learning, and collaboration among students in and out of the classroom. Embrace the digital age and take advantage of your students’ digital strengths.
To excel in the field of chemical engineering, one must be skilled in acquiring new knowledge and applying it to real-life situations. Educating individuals on the principles of learning can be incredibly helpful and allows both students and educators to develop the abilities and skills necessary to succeed in their respective roles.
1. Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, Mark McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Harvard University Press, US, 2014.
5. Barbara Oakley, Beth Rogowsky, and Terrence J Sejnowski, Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn, Penguin Putnam, US, 2021.
Online quiz tool allowing educators to create interactive quizzes, polls, and surveys.
AI-enhanced learning platform providing tools for studying and learning.
Game-based learning platform promising engagement and fun.
Digital whiteboard allowing you to collaborate in real time using either the Jamboard device (a 55-inch digital whiteboard that works with G Suite services), web browser or mobile app.
Interactive presentation tool helping teachers get live engagement from students and test knowledge retention using polls, quizzes, and open-ended questions.
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