Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

First thing to do to improve students learning

My greatest desire as a Professor is that my students enjoy learning. Some perform better than others, but to me the important part is that all of them enjoy learning. I see this in the best students with higher grades. But the majority is not like this.

One day I asked a student an honest answer about his difficulties in my discipline. He told me 3 things:
– lack of motivation
– the approach of solving exercises doesn’t seem to help to solve new ones
– “I’m shy… afraid to ask… Don’t know what other will think of me.”

This got me thinking.


In terms of motivation, it is one of the most recognized challenges in the learning process. I remember the feeling of being fascinated during college while I was learning, but it was the teacher’s involvement in the content that fascinated me. 


Bored teachers teaching always implied being bored with boring topics.

I think the approach of solving exercises is closely related with the way we assess students’ knowledge.


An exam. 

Are exams the best way to assess student’s learning? 
What if students have an undiagnosed dyslexia that difficulty the interpretation of problems? 
Or if the student has some difficulty dealing with emotions?

Once, in an exam, a student started to (literally) hyperventilate like in a falling airplane because she was too nervous. I calmed her, supported the best I could, and eventually she passed showing to have an adequate knowledge of. my discipline. 
But I thought, is this fair? 
Am I testing their ability to read, being emotionally in control, or assess what they learned?

I haven’t explored yet with detail other experiences, but many of those point to a more personalized assessment, or experience-based, but how can you do it with 1 Professor to 100 students?

I confess I’m new in this field. Two and a half years ago after 6 years of postdoc I got a tenure position at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. After one semester, I assumed the chair of Heat Transfer alone with 200 students because my colleague was having a planned sabbatical. I loved the challenge, but it was hard.

From the experiences in the first semester, one idea to decrease the weight of the exam was to introduce an exercise per week, a continuous evaluation, and the possibility of writing a paper on a topic of their choice. Some students could pass just because of the continuous evaluation, showing the importance of giving weight to the work they do during the semester. However, I’m not sure if this is enough. Only a few students wrote papers, but the effect on the final results was marginal.

Despite the positive result, my main purpose was to stimulate enjoyment in the learning process. And none of that worked.

Unexpectedly, what worked was something else.


A personal relationship based on listening. When I went through classes, I wasn’t only to teach them something, I wanted them to know that I listen to them. Their concerns, doubts, ideas, joys, sorrows, projects, everything.

One day a student met me at the end of class. He was having family issues (which he didn’t detailed, and I didn’t ask), and shared how an active academic associative life jeopardize his performance as student. I listen. He asks me how could he boost his performance. I wasn’t sure about the best thing to tell him. So I suggested he worked on 4 things.

Focus.
Listen.
Time.
Sleep.

Focus by disconnecting technology while studying.
Listen carefully to all that is said in class to work auditive and visual memories.
Find a specific time to study and gain a habit, like we do with lunch and dinner. Define the time interval and do not overcome it in the beginning.
Sleep. Because unless your body has rested you won’t be able to excel.

This was his reply.


“Despite all difficulties, I’ve never stop feeling motivated to make an effort to learn this discipline e I owe a lot of that motivation to you. I’ll never forget our conversation at the end of class, and I’ll use your word as a philosophy and motivation in my most complicated moments.”

When I received his email, I understood the first and most important thing for a Professor to improve students learning.

Listen.

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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