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The Challenge Of Teaching Large First Year Engineering Classes

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

FPD2 -- Highlighting First-Year Programs

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.1395.1 - 12.1395.7

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Paper Authors

author page

Peter Burton Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

The Challenge of Teaching Large First Year Engineering Classes Introduction

Teaching is not always appreciated to the same extent as research within university environments and yet teaching, particularly of large classes, is a significant source of revenue for universities and a significant contributor to reputation. Academic staff with lecturing responsibilities will often prefer to focus their teaching on fourth year or postgraduate students, because more prestige is associated with these advanced students and classes are generally much smaller, reducing the lecturer’s work load. Yet if a university does not have lecturers willing and able to do an excellent job of teaching first year students, retention becomes an issue, as does reputation and consequently recruitment in subsequent years. Recruitment and retention are very important for all universities but are issues that Australian universities are particularly focused on as they move into a period of increased competition, driven by a significant reduction in government funding over recent years and consequently a much higher reliance on student fees and other external income.

Teaching of first year students is particularly important because it is during this critical freshman year that students are most likely to drop out of the system if they become disengaged with the learning process. It is the responsibility and challenge of the first year lecturer not only to teach them the subject matter but also to motivate students, to instill in them a love of the subject, to confirm in the students’ minds that the choice they made is the right one, to provide opportunities to cement their learning and also to ensure, at every step of the way, that students are assisted to make the transition from secondary to tertiary studies.

Freshmen and sophomore engineering classes at RMIT University have traditionally been very large, due to the existence of a common first and second year for a total of six programs. Enrollment in a single class has been as high as 300 students but more recently first year classes in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering have been approximately 150/170 students, the downturn being due to cyclical changes linked to employment opportunities and other external factors. Whether 150 or 300 however, classes of this size present a considerable logistical challenge, as well as a number of other challenges and overcoming these and turning them to advantage should be a key element in the first year lecturer’s approach to teaching. Over the course of a number of years experience with freshmen classes, the author has found that there are seven key elements involved in retaining students and educating them for success and consequently in recruiting new students into the program. These elements are an interactive teaching style regardless of class size, regular tutorial groups, voluntary ‘help” sessions, regular in-class quizzes, regular homework which is marked and returned, the availability of practically focused learning opportunities and the development and availability of quasi-interactive videos.

While all of the above elements have been found to be a significant contributor to success, the availability of practically focused learning opportunities and the impact of quasi interactive videos as a teaching and learning tool are emerging as probably the two most important factors impacting the experience of large segments of the student population and are consequently given most focus in this paper.

Burton, P. (2007, June), The Challenge Of Teaching Large First Year Engineering Classes Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii.

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