Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) and Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Anderson et al., 2001) is a multi-tiered model that defines six cognitive levels of complexity: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Forehand 2005). Engineering students beginning their core engineering curriculum struggle to move between ‘knowledge’ and ‘comprehension’. Entwistle (1988) discusses a less complex model that incorporates three levels of learning and can easily be applied to University curriculum. Level 1 ‘surface learners’ have mastered the memorization technique and use the equations without deep thought or evaluation. Level 3 learners adopt an in depth approach, striving to comprehend the concepts and the application of new material. Level 2 ‘strategic learners’ fall between these two levels, commonly utilizing the surface approach, but they use their Level 3 skills only when necessary. Typical sophomore-junior level undergraduate engineering students are commonly ‘surface learners’, but need to be Level 2 ‘strategic learners’ that are working towards Level 3 at this stage in their curriculum.
Within the context of ABET accreditation (ABET, 20120, the lowest levels in any learning hierarchy model are incompatible with ABET program outcomes, which include the ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering (i.e., stated in Criteria (a)), the ability to design and conduct experiments (i.e., stated in Criteria (b)), and the ability to analyze and interpret data, and identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems (i.e., stated in criteria (e)). It is important that engineering faculty of all disciplines continuously push the envelope and work to elevate student learning and comprehension so that they can apply the fundamental concepts in engineering design and decision making.
The existence of various learning styles has been well documented and multiple classification systems have been developed. For example, the Felder-Silverman (1988) model separates learning styles into four dichotomous categories: student learning can be 1) sensory or intuitive, 2) visual or verbal, 3) active or reflective, and 4) sequential or global. Parallel to this student learning model, corresponding teaching styles can be 1) concrete or abstract, 2) visual or verbal, 3) active or passive, and 4) sequential or global. Evidence suggests that the current student population has a diverse learning style. Therefore, the typical teaching approach, which utilizes the abstract, verbal, passive, and sequential options, prevents students from reaching their full potential (Felder and Brent, 2005). Felder and Brent (2005) conducted a study that sampled over 2500 college students and professors around the world, and concluded that students and faculty are overwhelmingly visual learners even though material is more often than not delivered verbally. Additionally, students tend to comprehend more using their sensory, active, and global learning skills, but the delivery of the material does not reflect these strengths. Incorporating a variety of learning styles into the classroom is a challenge, but it is necessary to enable students to achieve a higher level of comprehension. Engineering education must move towards a student-centered, interactive learning environment where the responsibility of learning is shared between student and faculty.
Alternative teaching methods have been developed in the past and some are listed below, but it is important to note that these methods do not include a specially developed assessment plan and external review of their educational impact. Within the geotechnical arena, Dr. David Elton at Auburn University published a series of simple experiments that demonstrate fundamental geotechnical concepts such as effective stress, dilation, and shear strength using the concrete, visual, active approaches (Elton, 2001; Elton, Hanson, and Shannon, 2006). Wartman (2006) discusses the use of physical modeling to enhance geotechnical education, focusing primarily on the use of a centrifuge to demonstrate seepage and limiting equilibrium problems, which permitted students to physically control the experiment and witness failure mechanisms and transports using visual and active approaches. Likos and Lu (2004) used a simple permeameter in the classroom to demonstrate contaminant transport so that students could observe the measurements to determine soil parameters. In all cases, abstract concepts were placed in the hands of students, which generated an active learning environment. In other areas of engineering, Felder (2001), Unterweger (2005), and Estes (2005) documented their experiences with active learning exercises.