Standler's Teaching Style
Copyright 2001-02, 2004 by Ronald B. Standler, Ph.D., J.D.
Table of Contents
Handouts and Books
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:
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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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,
- designing electronic instrumentation and
- protecting electronic circuits and systems from damage
by lightning, nuclear electromagnetic pulse,
and other sources of overvoltages.
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.
- 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
- think from first principles (i.e., not by memorizing,
not by quoting either dogma or authorities,
not by copying from handbooks),
- be creative, and
- know more than one acceptable way to solve a particular problem.
- I think the goals of education should be:
- 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.
- to think critically:
- to decide which of two conflicting statements is correct.
- to recognize rubbish when one reads/hears it.
- to evaluate the credibility of information, without depending on
peer review or endorsement by experts.
- 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 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
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:
- creating and assigning homework problems to students.
- creating and assigning laboratory exercises to students.
- answering student's questions, both during lecture, in my office, and
in a laboratory room.
- having students design and build projects.
- sometimes having students write a term paper on a topic
chosen by each student.
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.
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
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.
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.
- introductory physics, 1972-73
- analog electronics, 1978 and 1986
- transmission lines, 1982.
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.
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:
- Clearly and honesty confess limitations on my competence,
so that I do not speak with authority in areas where I have neither
knowledge nor experience.
- Be honest, including admitting and correcting my mistakes.
- Fully disclose all assumptions made in mathematical derivations.
- Fully disclose limitations of measurements.
- Behave like a scientist, by:
- reading scholarly journals and books,
- making calculations,
- performing experiments or observations,
- considering all of the facts, not just the ones that
support my initial hypothesis or belief,
- striving to obtain not only an accurate result, but also a clear
and correct explanation
(i.e., both the "right answer" and the "right reason"),
- writing statements that are literally true,
thus avoiding hyperbole and guesswork, and by
- keeping facts (i.e., observations, measurements, calculations)
separate from personal opinions.
- Give credit to others for their novel discoveries or creative work.
- Put the student's name(s) first on publications that result
from my work with students. I allow students to publish
by themselves when I make no creative contribution to the work
(i.e., I only provide resources).
- Grade fairly (e.g., by not looking at the name of the student
on the examination paper; by making an conscientious effort to
deduct the same number of points for similar or identical errors
on two or more student's papers;
and by fairly considering any grading complaints by my students,
without retaliating against them
for bringing the alleged defect to my attention.).
- Condemn cheating and/or plagiarism,
making an effort to detect such misconduct, then reporting and
cooperating with the prosecution of misconduct,
according to the rules of the college.
- Before I submit material for publication
and before I post essays at my website, I submit drafts to my
colleagues and/or my graduate students for their suggestions
I take their comments or questions seriously, in an effort to
improve my work and avoid causing either misunderstanding or confusion.
- Respect copyrights and patents owned by others.
- Avoid conflicts of interest, and fully disclose them
when such conflicts occur.
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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