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Alumnus Geoffrey Herman is learning how to improve learning

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By Nathaniel Lash, ECE ILLINOIS
August 10, 2011

  • ECE postdoc and alumnus Geoffrey Herman (BSEE '05, MSEE '07, PhD '11) is studying ways to help students learn difficulty engineering concepts.
  • He recently received the 2011 Apprentice Faculty Grant from the American Society for Engineering Education for his work.
  • He has been developing concept inventories to measure and track student learning of engineering concepts.

Geoffrey Herman
Geoffrey Herman

ECE postdoc and alumnus Geoffrey Herman (BSEE ’05, MSEE ’07, PhD ’11) has spent nearly ten years studying electrical and computer engineering. He now has his sights set on understanding how students learn the tough concepts in engineering and how changes in instruction could help students learn these concepts.

“I enjoy engineering, but I found I really love teaching,” Herman said. “I think I’ve always been a little bit more of a people person than a gadget person.”

This “people person” recently received the 2011 Apprentice Faculty Grant from the American Society for Engineering Education, which recognizes contributions from those planning to pursue academic careers in engineering education research and scholarship. Herman shared the award with just four other students and faculty from around the nation. He attended a conference in July where he met many leaders in engineering education from around the country.

“It was a nonstop networking experience,” Herman said. “I just sat down with person after person, getting to know the big names and the up-and-coming researchers as well.”

The networking experience will provide Herman with a list of potential future research collaborators as well as mentors.

He we will be staying on campus for another semester to work with iFoundry (The Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education), before he continues on to another postdoc appointment in the spring at Purdue University, where he will further explore how students learn fundamental engineering concepts.

In the classroom, Herman is no stranger to trying new things. Last summer when teaching ECE 410: Digital Signal Processing, he decided to never lecture in the classroom. Instead he switched things around by posting “microlectures” on YouTube, no more than seven minutes long, to introduce students to the material. The classroom was used to help students work on problem-solving skills in teams. Herman found that using this method doubled the improvement of students’ conceptual understanding over traditional methods—his students increased their scores by 60 percent, versus 25 percent nationally, on standardized conceptual understanding tests called concept inventories.

“If you really focus on helping students with problem solving in the classroom and connecting with other students, you can really improve learning,” Herman said.

His report on these findings earned him the Best Student Paper Award, given to him at an IEEE conference on signal processing education.

Herman’s dissertation focused on improving student learning through the development of concept inventories, which are essentially multiple choice tests that show what concepts students possess after taking a class.

Herman said students often come into computer engineering with some common, obstructive misconceptions. One example he gave was students’ confusion of the circuit diagram symbols of multiplexors and decoders, which look similar, but are vastly different in function.

“Because of visual similarities, students think they have a functional similarity,” he said. “So one of the big things we have to do in computer architecture instruction is to help students think about things in terms of function rather than appearance.”

The test, developed in the field of computer architecture, has been administered at six other schools, and Herman hopes the inventories will find their way to up to 20 more schools by the fall semester.

Herman said, “There’s a growing national interest in concept inventories, so that we can empirically study how to improve students’ learning.”

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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