Standler's Teaching Style

Copyright 2001-02, 2004 by Ronald B. Standler, Ph.D., J.D.

Table of Contents

Homework Problems
Laboratory Exercises
Handouts and Books
Professional Values


My teaching philosophy may appear superficially contradictory as I find value in both the idealism of pure science and the ability to solve important practical problems:
  1. I am an idealist who believes knowledge is good for its own sake, and who believes that science and engineering students should attack problems from first principles. First principles are valid and useful for a lifetime, in contrast to rules of practical technology that can change every few years.
  2. But I also believe that science is valuable to society, not just because of an idealistic joy in discovering new facts about the universe, but also because science drives new technology, which produces economic development and — when used properly — makes a better quality of life for people.
  3. I believe that many problems in applied science and engineering are fascinating and offer genuine intellectual challenges. In fact, most of my professional experience was not in pure science, but was in applied science, particularly:
    1. designing electronic instrumentation and
    2. protecting electronic circuits and systems from damage by lightning, nuclear electromagnetic pulse, and other sources of overvoltages.
With these fundamental views in mind, I wrote a short essay titled Why Attend College?,, that explains my dissatisfaction with the conventional economic motivation to attend college, then gives my opinion that:
Education is about learning to think — learning different ways to analyze a problem and find a solution.

One of the traditional purposes of a university is to prepare students for a future career in the learned professions (e.g., law, medicine, engineering, science, scholarly research, and teaching). The distinguishing feature of education for learned professions, as contrasted with mere vocational training, is that it is desirable that learned professionals:
I think the goals of education should be:
  1. to prepare students to learn on their own, by reading books and by doing experiments. Anyone with a bachelor's degree should be able to teach themselves whatever technical skill(s) they may need.

  2. to think critically:
    1. to decide which of two conflicting statements is correct.
    2. to recognize rubbish when one reads/hears it.
    3. to evaluate the credibility of information, without depending on peer review or endorsement by experts.

  3. to understand how to work with an expert (e.g., physician, attorney, scientist, engineer, ....), instead of being passive while the expert solves the problem.
In my essay on Creativity in Science and Engineering,, I observed that many features of conventional education are actually harmful to development of creative ways of thinking.


In my opinion, the conventional use of lectures is due to the efficient use of faculty time, not because lectures are a good way to teach problem-solving skills. (Lectures can be an effective way to communicate facts, such as in a history class. But the most difficult task for science and engineering students is learning a variety of techniques for solving problems, not learning facts.)

If students can learn from listening to a lecture, then they should be able to learn the same things from reading a book, which makes lectures unessential.

In my opinion, students learn best by being actively engaged in doing something, not by passively listening to lectures and taking notes. As nearly all students know well, it is one thing to watch an expert professor effortlessly and quickly solve a problem on the chalkboard, and quite another thing for the student to agonizingly fumble for hours with similar problems in the homework. Hence, my teaching methods emphasize:
Despite being critical of lectures as an instructional tool, I do prepare lectures that are aimed at the majority of the students in my class. Beyond explaining the basic material and doing some simple examples on the chalkboard, I also try to mention common mistakes or misconceptions and why they are wrong. I prefer to put long derivations in handouts, instead of spending class time filling chalkboards full of equations. Sometimes, I show short films or videotapes, to illustrate situations that are more complicated than I can describe using chalk or an overhead transparency.

Homework Problems

I assign a set of homework problems every week, except when there is an examination given in that class.

I have found that most problems in conventional textbooks are uninteresting, because they are disconnected from real-world situations experienced by practicing scientists and engineers. For that reason, I create most of the homework problems that I assign.

Most of my prior teaching experience has been in teaching analog electronics to students majoring in electrical engineering. The conventional textbooks and their homework problems give a circuit diagram and ask students to calculate various parameters of the circuit (e.g., the voltage gain, the input impedance, the power dissipated in a particular element, etc.). In contrast, the homework that I assigned gave specifications and asked the students to design a circuit that met those specifications and was also economical.

Homework consumes many hours of a student's time each week, so I make the homework score about 20% of each student's final grade, in order to encourage students to complete the homework. I also make the examination problems similar (but not identical) to homework problems, which offers students additional incentive to understand the homework.

I personally prepare detailed written solutions to all homework problems that I assign, and distribute copies of my solutions to the students immediately after the homework is due. I hope that students learn other techniques or shortcuts from reading my solutions, after they have found their own solutions. And by carefully preparing homework solutions, I show the students that I too take the homework seriously.

The above paragraphs assume that I am teaching a class in electrical engineering or physics. If I were teaching a class in law, ethics, or history (e.g., impact of technology on society), then I would assign a term paper, instead of weekly written homework exercises.

Laboratory Exercises

Most subjects in a liberal arts college require only a library, a computer for wordprocessing, and a place to read, think, and write. Science and engineering are different from these other intellectual disciplines, in that a laboratory environment is an essential part of experimental science and nearly all of engineering.

I wrote laboratory exercises for classes in: In writing instructions for those laboratory exercises, I did the exercise myself using the same equipment as will be used by the students, and included hints about good laboratory techniques. These introductory laboratory exercises prepare the students to design and build projects in their last year of college, and for a career in science and engineering after graduation.

While it is important that students in an electronics class build elementary circuits and measure their properties, in my opinion, the most important laboratory skill learned in such a class is how to diagnose a circuit that is not properly functioning and learning how to fix the problem. Such diagnosis and repair is essential in the student's career after graduation, because new designs (both hardware and software) routinely contain defects that need to be corrected by the designer.

It is important to keep the laboratory room open outside of scheduled laboratory class times, so students can try their own ideas, build things that they have designed, as well as have extra time to finish an assigned laboratory exercise.

Handouts and Books

I have written many handouts to supplement information in textbooks.

An example is my handout on Technical Writing,, which accumulated a total of 561,760 requests from when it was first posted on the Internet in October 1999 until my most recent accounting on 31 Dec 2008. This handout continues to receive an average of approximately 200 requests/day.

Intermittently during 1978-1986, I wrote drafts of an analog electronics textbook for students majoring in electrical engineering or physics. I abandoned this project when I discovered that publishers of college textbooks were only interested in books that taught analysis of circuits, because that was the focus of conventional classes in American universities. In contrast, my draft book taught design of analog electronic circuits. I know my approach worked, because I used drafts of my book when teaching electrical engineering students during several semesters at The Pennsylvania State University.

In 1989, Wiley-Interscience published my book for practicing engineers, Protection of Electronic Circuits from Overvoltages. Wiley continued to publish this book for eleven years. In 2002, Dover Publications republished it in a paperback edition and added it to their list of classic books in science and engineering. The success of my technical book for practicing engineers may make it easier to get my future books published.

Professional Values

The sections above — lectures, homework, laboratory exercises, handouts and books that I write — are all devoted purely to the subject matter that I teach.

But there is more to teaching than presenting the subject matter. And there is more to learning to be a physicist, electrical engineer, or computer programmer than learning laws of nature, solving equations, and doing homework.

When I look more than 25 years backwards in time, to when I was a student, the professors who made the deepest impression on me were neither those who had written the most peer-reviewed papers, nor those who had the largest research budgets. The deepest impression on me was made by a few professors with complete honesty and integrity, who held both themselves and their students to the highest standard. And, when I realized this, I overcame my reluctance to add a section on values to this essay on my philosophy of teaching.

Making a public proclamation of ethics can be both offensive, self-serving praise and an invitation to hypocrisy. But failing to mention ethics because of a fear of sometime making a mistake is a failure to acknowledge and accept that there are ethical obligations of a professional, both as a scientist/engineer and as a professor. I do not allow my fear of making a mistake to deter me from doing creative work with new ideas, and I do not allow my fear of making an ethical mistake to deter me from trying to be an ethical professional.

In addition to presenting the subject matter of the class, or guiding a graduate student through a research project, a professor is also a role model for students, who communicates the values of the profession to the students. Accepting that responsibility means that I, amongst other rules:
The above list is not a complete list of ethical principles that I obey, but it includes the more commonly used principles. Of course, the above list of principles is not original: it is derived from both codes of ethics by various professional societies, and my observations of the conduct of my former professors, who taught me professional ethics by their example.

In contemporary American society, "values" often means an overtly religious message. It is wrong to preach any purely religious message to a group of captive students in a science classroom. The values that I mention here are more a matter of professional ethics than sectarian religious teachings, although there are common elements of morality in both professional ethics and religion.

Finally, in a world full of lying politicians, propaganda, and full of salespeople and advertisements that will say anything to get us to purchase their product, we need to be constantly reminded that one must be able to trust professionals. The loyalty of a scientist should be to Truth, and not to either popular sentiment, dogma, superstition, or prejudice.


I enjoy sharing my enthusiasm for physics, electrical engineering, and computer programming with students and showing them how to solve practical problems by working from first principles. Above all, I enjoy encouraging my students to be creative and to learn how to design things.

This document is at
created November 2001, revised April 2002, minor revision 25 Jan 2008

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