Content Comes First

Helen L. Plants

Engineering Education - March 1972 - page 533

The determination of a proper set of measurable content objectives is a very difficult task. It results in much soulsearching and argument and depends for success largely upon the content competence of the teacher himself.

Engineering education centers on content. The statement is so obvious that it is sometimes forgotten. It is one of those basic assumptions which sometimes become lost during the development of a new approach and is rediscovered only when its violation results in an educational disaster. Preoccupation with teaching methods at the expense of concern with content is an insidious danger for any educational system, but is a particular peril to the system which attempts innovation.

The engineering competence of an engineering teacher in his content area is assumed. Most engineering schools, after a careful initial assessment of a teacher's content competence, make the premise that he will take whatever steps are necessary to maintain that competence throughout his teaching career. There is an unstated assumption of vital importance that each individual teacher will bend every possible effort to attaining and retaining content competence. He must study his area in books, in papers, in the laboratory or in the field. He must remain fresh. If he loses, or never attains, a mastery of his content area, no amount of teaching innovation can save his classes from mediocrity and eventual failure. Every teacher must continually assess and increase his knowledge of the subject matter he sets out to teach.

Neither may a teacher lose sight of the fact that his defined role is to increase the content competence of his students. His primary objective must be not to entertain them, not to please them, not even to motivate them, but to increase their understanding of a given content area. All other goals must be secondary. Engineering education must be preoccupied with the student's understanding and use of content.


What are implications of all this for the individual or the school that would attempt to develop innovations within the structure of engineering education? Simply that all educational design must be founded in content and that all experimental systems must include an evaluation of the content competence they produce.

The first step toward a valid educational design is to carefully delineate the content which will be taught in a given instructional unit. Here the competence of the teacher in the content area comes into play. From the many items which might be taught he must select those which are appropriate for his class. In so doing he must use his expertise to weed out those topics which are trivial, or outdated, or tangential to the main thrust of his course. He must select those which are most necessary and useful to his students, both at the present time and in the predictable future. He must select the optimum content.

Having selected the content of his course, he must next define the degree of expertise which he expects his student to attain in each content item. He must come to the active realization that perfect competence in every detail is probably unattainable and certainly unreasonable. He must, therefore, use his professional competence to rank order the skills he would have his students attain, demanding mastery in some areas but much less in others. Here the teacher must utilize his engineering knowledge to determine the relative importance of topics and his experience as a teacher to realistically assess the level of competence which his students may be expected to attain. He must consider their maturity their previous educational experiences, and their probable future needs. He should consider how this unit stands in the curriculum. is it the first, last, or middle unit of a sequence? Or is it part of a rather isolated course, somewhat apart from the major field of the student? All these issues must be considered in determining how well the student must learn each item of content.

When the content area has been delineated and the required level of competence determined, the next step is to simply formalize the conclusions in a set of content objectives.

For maximum usefulness, content objectives should be thought out until they are measurable. That is, the teacher must come to an agreement with himself or with others as to what evidence he will accept that a student has attained appropriate content competence This is sometimes quite difficult since many teachers tend to evaluate students' competence in a rather intuitive manner. It is, however, a matter of basic importance since unless it is done the effectiveness of innovative instruction cannot be assessed.

The determination of a proper set of measurable content objectives is a very difficult task. It results in much soul-searching and argument and depends for success largely upon the content competence of the teacher himself.

After the objectives are thus delineated, the details of the instructional method may be designed and the innovation tried out. Compared to the arduous planning stage, the actual execution of the educational experiment usually seems easy, since it almost always affords both the teacher and the class exhilaration and enjoyment.

It is precisely because most educational experiments are pleasurable that the innovator must again return to content. It is far too easy to confuse students' favorable reactions and one's own fascination with something new with successful teaching. The sad fact is that it doesn't matter in the least how happy everyone is if the amount of content learned does not at least equal that learned using the old method.

The proof of the pudding must lie in content testing. The students taught by the innovative method must be compared with those taught in the traditional fashion. The comparison may be made with past classes or with "control" classes taught simultaneously, but the comparison must be made on the basis of content competence.

If the new system shows content competence equal to or greater than that obtained by the previous system, there is every reason to us, it again. Testing should, however, be continued long enough to insure that the content improvement does not damp out, resulting in a watered-down, rather than an improved course.

If the new method results in a content competence equal to, or greater than that achieved in the control group, it is appropriate to consider and maximize gains in student motivation, interest, timeliness and similar areas. Given the assurance of appropriate content competence, tremendous advantage may be gained by attention to these matters. If, however, there is a significant loss in content competence, it is highly unlikely that gains in other areas such as motivation can offset it, and the new system must be abandoned or modified to improve content competence. No innovation should be allowed to stand that does not offer adequate evidence of content competence in its students.

In summary, improvement in engineering education requires that content competence must come first and that all methodologies must wait upon it. The successful innovators will be those who are able to bring all manner of new educational techniques into teaching engineering without forgetting for an instant that the object of it all is to teach engineering content. Such teachers will begin and end each educational experiment with content, beginning each with the statement of content objectives and ending with the measurement of content taught.