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Why Are My Students Performing So Poorly?
Dr. Christina Delgado reviewing exams
Christina's students did not perform on a recent exam as well as she expected.
Dr. Christina Delgado has been teaching for 15 years in mechanical engineering, but in one class she’s frustrated that her students’ performance is not meeting her expectations. Exam scores are lower than previous years she’s taught this class. Trying to figure out why her students are struggling, Christina speaks with an instructional consultant to tease out the roadblocks to student performance.
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Dr. Delgado is teaching Vibration Analysis, a senior level mechanical engineering class. She taught this class before. In fact, she taught it for 8 years but hasn’t taught it in the last 3 years. She looked forward to teaching this course again and had a refreshed outlook toward this class since she attended two teaching workshops and has taught mostly graduate students lately.
Strategies Menu
The students have just completed their mid-term exam, but Christina is disappointed: the average score was 63%, and the low score was 35%. She expected an average score in the 80s.
Christina is very surprised with these numbers and can’t figure out why so many of her students performed poorly. She can imagine many possible explanations but is a bit muddled trying to think through them all. Since she’d like some support working through this mid-term problem and to ensure her students are learning, she met with an instructional consultant.
In the first part of the meeting, the instructional consultant asked Christina what signs of learning problems the students showed before this point. Christina recounted that she heard some squawking about some difficult homework problems and she noted average scores on two earlier quizzes were low.
The instructional consultant also asked about the mid-term exam and the kinds of questions students faced. Christina explained that she rewrote the exam to include questions that require higher-order thinking.
Considering the many factors that could impact poor student performance, the instructional consultant also inquired about the students’ knowledge going into this class, the energy level, the diversity of the students, and other qualities. Christina explained that her students are nearly all mechanical engineering majors with the usual mix of ages and ethnicities. But Christina brought up that, due to recent curricular changes, some mechanical engineering classes, including this vibrations analysis class, reduced from four credit hours to three.
Be an engineer—get out there and collect data on your students to improve your teaching.
The instructional consultant pointed out a few factors that could be affecting this class: Christina’s teaching style and expectations of students may have changed as a result of participating in teaching workshops and teaching graduate students for 3 years; these students may be less prepared for this course than the undergraduates Christina previously taught; or since Christina revised the content and structure of the course, there may still be some bugs to work out.
The instructional consultant then offered some suggestions:
  1. To tease apart the possible reasons or to identify new reasons why your students are struggling, consider obtaining data about the nature of their struggles. For example, have an instructional consultant come into your next class session and gather student feedback (sometimes called an SGID, Small Group Instructional Diagnosis). Working from data could be the most efficient way to make changes, helping you choose which of the remaining suggestions to try first.
  2. So that you are not surprised again, take more opportunities to assess your students learning throughout the term. Ungraded classroom assessment techniques can be a quick way to discover the areas your students are struggling with, allowing you to modify your teaching to help them. Especially when curricular changes affect prerequisites, learn what your students’ prior experience is.
  3. Now that your exam questions engage higher-order thinking, revisit your teaching techniques to ensure you are promoting deeper thinking. If you are asking harder questions on exams or even quizzes, build enough interactivity or discussion into class for the students to practice answering those questions (e.g., synthesizing concepts, evaluating a system)
  4. Changing credits also means changing class hours. You may need to revise course content to fit the time allowed for the class.
Dr. Christina Delgado was encouraged that she could improve her students’ learning, feeling she has options to pursue.
Gathering student feedback to improve teaching
The first step to improving teaching is seeking students’ opinions during the term, and not at the end of the course. These links guide educators in gathering data on teaching quality.

Mid-course Evaluations: Don’t Wait! (PDF)
This engineering faculty support center suggests simple ways to gather feedback from students that can help you revise a course, emphasizing issues that can be addressed mid-term over questions that those that can only be revised before the next offering.

Using Feedback from Students to Improve Your Teaching (PDF)
Guidelines for gathering and interpreting feedback from students.

Using Midterm Evaluations and Others Sources Of Student Feedback on Teaching
Advice on obtaining formative, improvement-oriented feedback, such as Small Group Instructional Diagnosis, questionnaires, or quality control circles.

Small Group Instructional Diagnosis
An SGID is a method used by instructional consultants to obtain student feedback mid-term on an instructor’s teaching. This site explains SGID in detail and the instructional consultation process.
Assessing student learning
Using ungraded methods to gauge students’ knowledge and understanding of the course material can illuminate areas they are struggling in. Used throughout the term, classroom assessment techniques can help you identify what they do not understand and may help to avoid surprising exam performances.

Field Tested Learning Assessment Guide for Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology Instructors
An entire site devoted to helping STEM educators assess student learning, offering overviews of assessment, guidance in matching assessment techniques to your goals, and several classroom assessment techniques (CATs) to try out.

Do You Know Where Your Students Are? Classroom Assessment and Student Learning (PDF)
Offers a three step process for obtaining feedback on your students' learning and ultimately improving your teaching. Includes examples of classroom assessments.

Addressing Students’ Needs: Importance of Knowing your Students
This essay stresses that knowledge about your students, especially if they have diverse backgrounds, interests, and levels of preparation, can help you effectively refine your teaching.
Matching teaching techniques to teaching goals
When the learning objectives are set to high standards, teaching methods and activities should be selected that most effectively engage students in higher-order thinking. These links explain research-based teaching methods that could help students achieve the learning goals.

Higher Order Thinking Skills (PDF)
A useful table of Bloom’s six levels of intellectual behavior, matched up to instructor activities that can help students achieve increasingly complex and abstract levels of learning. Provided by an engineering faculty support center.

The Future of Engineering Education II: Teaching Methods That Work (PDF)
Engineering education researchers offer instructional methods that have proven effective in engineering classrooms. Includes a section on promoting active learning in the classroom.

Formulating Effective Questions
Guidelines that may help STEM educators ask questions that promote deeper thinking in students.

The Future Of Engineering Education III. Developing Critical Skills (PDF)
Guides engineering educators in helping students develop process skills such as communication, team work, writing, or problem-solving. Explains a model of intellectual development.
Revising a class
Many factors can prompt an engineering educator to revise a class: new ideas for teaching material, obtaining feedback from students, external factors such as departmental curricular changes, or a commitment to more interactive and engaging teaching methods. These links may guide you through making those improvements. Remember that revising a course is an iterative process best done in small, incremental steps.

Preparing or Revising a Course
Easy-to-scan strategies to help one evaluate and decide upon the scope of a class (including limiting course content), structure the activities and assignments, and establish course policies.

Navigating the Bumpy Road to Student-Centered Instruction
Helpful advice to handle engineering student’s potential resistance to more student-centered instruction, such as using active learning techniques or using more open-ended problems.
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