Teaching Engineering through Programmed Instruction

Helen L. Plants and Wallace S. Venable

Engineering Education, March 1971 - page 534

Programmed Instruction (PI) can no longer be considered a fad. Its effectiveness in many areas of instruction is v. ell-documented. The amount of programmed material on the market is on the increase. The time is near when the engineering teacher will be able to select programmed components for his course in the same way that he selects a text. Consequently, it seems appropriate to look at strategies for effective use of this educational tool.

Three Goals in the Classroom

In order to develop strategies to maximize the effectiveness of programmed instructional materials, it is first necessary to look at what a teacher does, or tries to do, in any classroom situation.

First, a teacher can transmit information. He simply tells students what he wants them to know. He presents, explains, and expands upon textual materials. He derives. He develops ideas.

Second, a teacher may develop engineering wisdom. By modeling good problem-solving behavior, by constantly exposing students to the rich variety of problems that surround them, by demonstrating the way an engineer can perceive many possible solutions and forecast the probable benefits and shortcomings of each, and by showing how professionals find their highest rewards in the quality and usefulness of their work, he encourages students to behave in similar fashion when they encounter new and challenging problems. In a sense he teaches, through demonstration, the habit of mind appropriate to the discipline of engineering. He helps his students gain the wisdom to use what they know and seek help for what they do not. This is the most important teaching function. It is also the most difficult one to do well, and it is the area in which it is most difficult to measure one's own effectiveness (Plants and Venable, 1970).

Third, by the way he administers his course, a teacher develops habits and attitudes in his students. Whether these results are desirable or not may be almost accidental, as most teachers are neither aware that they are teaching in this area nor skillful in producing the results they may desire. Such things as the way teachers take or do not take the roll. collect or not collect homework, set due dates and levy penalties or not-all have an effect on the habits and attitudes that students develop. These are the everyday, common decisions every teacher must make about the way he conducts his class and they, too, are a major influence on the instructional processes.

The aims of the teacher can be summarized as: to transmit information, to teach engineering wisdom, and to develop good habits and attitudes. Programmed materials can influence the teacher's effectiveness in all three areas. The quality of the programmed material will determine its effectiveness in transmitting information. The personal style of the teacher and the way he interacts with students and problems w ill determine his success in teaching engineering wisdom during the time that programmed materials free him from the information-dispensing role. The strategies used in administering the course and the programs will influence the habit patterns and attitudes that students develop.

Why Use Programmed Instruction?

How does programmed material fit into the schemes of instruction? What role does the teacher have left if he decides to go programmed ? The answer lies primarily in how he uses the programs.

The evidence is piling up daily that when it comes to the routine transmission of information, a good program will do an excellent job. The background information, the tedious proof, the drill session on using the method of problem solution can all be handled effectively and efficiently by programs.

Since one of the strengths of a program is the consistency of its results on its intended population, it is essential that the teacher select the program which best meets his goals for his students. For optimum results with a program, the teacher should carefully analyze his objectives (Mager, 1962) and seek the program which matches them most closely. In some cases, he may wish to write additional material himself, in order to accomplish the best total match (Markle, 1964 ).

One final point in the selection of a program concerns its technical excellence as a program; that is, whether it gives the student optimum reward for his invested effort. In order to estimate the probability of the program's success in doing this, the teacher will need to learn something about the theory and practice of programmed instruction (How To Evaluate Published Programmed Instruction, 1969). An important point to keep in mind is that the teacher should be more interested in satisfactory results from his students than in the elegance of a text's style, so he should be prepared to value the opinion of users of the program (his students) over that of a reviewer.

How To Use Class Time

For the moment, let's assume that the teacher has found a program that meets his needs reasonably well. He is going to use it. Now, what does he do with his class time if the information is being transmitted by program ? If the goal for an instructional unit is primarily transfer of factual information, he may practically eliminate meetings and lower the teacher-student ratio. There may be many situations in which this would be a very tenable solution.

But if the goals include more than information transfer, there is another possible answer about what to do with class time-it can be used to develop engineering wisdom. How? That depends on the teacher, the class, and the material. The teacher may choose to dray, on illustrative examples from his own experiences and interests, and to demonstrate the wisdom of being flexible, analyzing the probable outcomes of different alternatives, using others' special skills, and readjusting one's plans when errors occur.

Or, he may take cues from the class and demonstrate flexibility by discussing difficulties they have met, or the applications they can suggest. He may bring in a table-top demonstration, or he may take the class to the laboratory for a demonstration. Or, if none of these procedures seems useful on a given day, he may dismiss the class early. At various times, he will probably want to use all of these strategies and others that he will develop. The real bonus that programmed instruction offers the teacher is the chance to use contact time to do what he really wants to do-to teach engineering wisdom.

Incorporating Programs into the Course

Once the teacher has selected a program and decided on the way he wants to use the class time that programs liberate, the only thing that remains is to decide on the mechanics for incorporating the programs into the course.

The last of the three things that teachers do stimulate and strengthen habit patterns and attitudes -seems to take on a larger importance when using programs. Simply because the teacher must decide on how to organize his course to incorporate programs, his attention can easily be directed to the influence of this organizational structure on the personal characteristics of the students. Different approaches to using programs will result in either increased or decreased dependency in students, will determine whether students study regularly or rely on last minute cramming for exams, will affect the tension or comfortable relaxation in the classroom, and will influence the confidence or insecurity of the students. The decisions of the teacher on the organizational structure of the course with programs will affect all these areas and many more.

Teachers have incorporated programs into their classes in various ways. A description of their strategies and their outcomes may help in devising a suitable method.

Independent Study

Programs have been used in several kinds of independent study situations which can be classified into two small groups. based on whether or not the student is to be given academic credit for the material covered.

Special Preparation - Special preparation independent study is aimed at helping students fill in gaps in their previous preparation. Many of the commercially published programs were first designed for this purpose. In this approach, the student is informed of the skills which he will need and told where he may find the programmed instruction. He is then free to make his own decisions as to how much work he will do in that area. The only check on his work is in whether or not he is able to handle subsequent work that hinges on the programmed material.

Some teachers have prepared or used programs which students complete outside of class in order to develop prerequisite skills which they have bypassed or missed in their earlier studies. Others have used a similar approach to assigning remedial studies in areas in which they have previously found the students to be poorly prepared or in subjects for which they have already received credit. This is also a special preparation strategy with no essential difference from strategies for material not previously covered.

Regular Curriculum - Regular curriculum independent study is very similar and is sometimes used for courses in which the students wish to receive credit. In this situation, the teacher in charge may hold an initial organizational meeting and then dismiss the class until the examination. The programs will show the student the skills he must demonstrate on the examinations and help him master them. The student may consult the instructor if the need arises. but there is no other instructor-directed activity. Such a strategy seems particularly appropriate when such a small number of students needs a course that it is not economically feasible to offer it in a conventional manner.

In certain special situations, students have highly favorable reactions to being presented with the opportunity for independent study. Students who wish to shorten the time they must spend on their degree and students who wish to complete remedial work without interrupting other activities often choose and appreciate this course format.

However, in many everyday school situations, students actually are as interested in meeting and understanding their teachers as they are in mastering material. In this case, students may strongly resent lack of regular class meetings.

Teacher Guidance

Several teachers who make extensive use of programmed instruction use it in a way which contrasts sharply with the independent study approach. They have developed systems in which the programs remain the major information transmission medium, but in addition they build a carefully structured environment around the programmed material.

Guided Design

The system developed by Wales and Stager (1970) relies almost entirely on specially produced programs to teach technical concepts and methods, but the goal of teaching these concepts is definitely secondary to that of helping the students to deal effectively with engineering design work.

They use carefully developed design problems and small group discussions to lead the students to a need for the concepts. After the need has been established, the student learns the material at home from the program, and returns to class to apply what he has just learned to the design situation. In this way the student is guided through the need-learn-apply sequence which is so often a part of design work. The designs are completed as team projects, but each student is individually responsible for learning the material in the programs and is tested on a pass-or-restudy basis.

Continuous Counseling.

Continuous counseling is a system developed by the authors for programmed courses which are designed to teach basic conceptual material. Under this system students are required to demonstrate their level of mastery of the material each time they complete a 2-hour to 4-hour study unit. Each study unit is a programmed text section which integrates new information, instruction, and practice in solving textbook problems. The student is generally expected to be tested on the new material and will then have an opportunity to discuss the test and the material with his classmates and instructor. The instructor may use any remaining time to show the class his personal tricks and applications for the concept. Table top demonstrations are often used as discussion starters.

Grades are based in large part on traditional examinations, but frequent graded quizzes and discussions keep each student informed on his mastery of each concept so that he may review knowledgeably for the more critical examinations. If he fails a quiz, he is advised to restudy the material and retake the quiz, so that most students are realistically prepared for their examinations.

While classes and quizzes are held on a regularly scheduled basis, attendance is not required. Those students who fall behind may take a make-up quiz in an independent study center. Students are expected to complete the material before the end of the course, and nearly all of them do. Those who need extra help are encouraged to visit the instructor in his office.

The instructors accept any excuse for a temporary delay in completing a study unit, but no one is excused from completing all work. The individual student seems to respond to this by setting up his own standard of permissible excuses for postponing an assignment.

Many students become office visitors. Requests for administrative decisions, technical help, personal guidance and social visits occur in fairly equal numbers. The fact that course graduates continue to make occasional office visits and to follow the progress of younger classes seems to be an endorsement of the general features of the course.

Most students learn to accept the study-test-discuss pattern easily and come to class prepared to be active participants. They find that regular, conscientious work results in consistently good results. The class often encourages the teacher to give them further insight into the material, and students actively discourage the repetition of material they have already mastered.

Just a Spoonful of Teaching

The methods previously described might be considered to represent two poles. In one instance, the use of the programs is essentially unstructured, with the teacher exerting little or no control over the student Interpersonal relationships are minimal. In the second case, the situation is completely reversed, with a maximum of control being exerted to assure proficiency at each check point. Interaction between the teacher and the students is high.

There is also a middle ground. One excellent teacher is attempting to devise a system which retains the efficiency of independent study but incorporates the opportunity for personal motivation with the professional guidance and human example which contact with the professor can provide. He has done most of his work using off-the-shelf programs written by other people.

One strategy that he has employed consists of scheduling a one-hour examination about once a month to cover a specified part of the programmed course. This serves as a check point on progress for both teacher and student and allows for any necessary remedial action before the crucial moment of final examination. In addition, a special session is scheduled prior to each examination, when the student can get help with whatever troubles him, as well as watch the teacher use the recently learned material in a variety of ways. Attendance at these sessions is voluntary, and they are the only regularly scheduled classes other than the tests themselves. The last feature of this system is very simple-a complete open-door policy on office hours and a personal commitment to persuade the students that the teacher really wants to see them in his office if they do have trouble. After a bit of initial reluctance, students do avail themselves of the opportunity.

This system has apparently worked out well. It has taken advantage of the self-pacing properties of programs at the same time that it has provided check points. In addition, it has provided personal guidance to the student who felt he needed it at the time when he felt its need.

Follow Your Scheme

Many new and perhaps better strategies for using programmed instruction will undoubtedly be devised. Each system, however, is only an optimum solution for a specific setting. Each teacher must plan a system to fit his own goals, students, and personal teaching style.

In the last analysis, programmed instruction does not free a teacher from teaching. It does free him to teach differently.


  1. How To Evaluate Programmed Instruction, Learning Technology Incorporated, Albany, N. Y., 1969.
  2. Mager, R. F., Preparing Instructional Objectives, Fearon Publishers, Palo Alto, California, 1962.
  3. Markle, S. M., Good Frames and Bad: A Grammar of Frame Writing, Wiley, New York, 1964.
  4. Plants, H L. and Venable, W. S., "Teaching Problem Solving Skills: Theory or Practice First," Engineering Education, vol. 60, no. 7, March 1970, pp. 732-734.
  5. Wales, C. E., and Stager, R. A., Guided Design, A New Concept in Course Design and Operation, Paper presented at 78th ASEE Annual Meeting, June 1970. Available from the authors.