Research Enhances Engineering Teaching and Learning

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Competency-based learning is a teaching practice that focuses on testing students on each skill they learn, allowing them as many attempts as needed to master the material, before they advance in the course. The practice has been implemented at Harvey Mudd College. For instance, mathematics professor Darryl Yong was an early proponent and is a local expert.

In June, engineering professor Matthew Spencer presented his research on competency-based learning at the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and was given the Electrical and Computer Engineering Division’s best paper award.

In the paper, Spencer describes his implementation of competency-based learning in an HMC class. “Prior literature, largely from medical education, shows a strong consensus that this technique enhances learning, but engineering education literature has only reported on this practice in earnest in the past decade,” he says. “This paper described an implementation of competency-based learning in an analog lab class. The implementation relied on one-on-one conferences with students during lecture time to review competency tests, and on out-of-class videos to deliver content and free up classroom time.”

The results of the research, “Implementation of Competency-Based Learning in a Laboratory-Focused Analog Design Course,” are impressive: “It resulted in a full grade of improvement to mean exam scores compared against a control course despite students spending two hours less per week on the class,” says Spencer, who has created teaching materials for his Intro to Analog Design course.

“Though other papers have demonstrated the benefits of competency-based learning, this paper provides a template for adapting competency-based learning to a common course in electrical engineering,” he says. “The paper also coincides with a public release of the teaching materials, which may help adoption of this beneficial teaching practice.”

Looking ahead, Spencer says, “The research could be replicated at other institutions if the teaching materials prove popular. Alternatively, deploying competency-based learning in a larger class provides an opportunity to think carefully about how the techniques in this paper scale when there are many more students.”