5 questions for author Susan Riedel on teaching electric circuits

Yvonne Vannatta, Product Marketing Manager at Pearson recently sat down with Susan Riedel, author and Marquette University professor to talk about the challenges instructors face when teaching Electric Circuits and the best practices Susan uses to tackle them.

Yvonne – What is the biggest challenge instructors face when teaching Circuits?

Susan – Mastering the many different circuit analysis techniques presented in Electric Circuits requires most students to solve a lot of problems.  It is often hard to convince students that they cannot simply read through a worked example problem, or watch an instructor solve a problem at the board – they need to actively solve problems themselves in order to learn the circuit analysis techniques.

While I typically assign 10 – 12 problems each week for homework, the students would benefit from working at least twice that number of problems every week.  So I have to find ways to get students to solve lots more problems than I assign for homework.

Yvonne – What strategies do you use to engage students in more problem solving?

Susan – I use a combination of Learning Catalytics questions, pre-lab questions, and old exams to present and ask students to solve more problems.

Learning Catalytics

I use Learning Catalytics to pose questions to my students throughout my lectures.  They get a small amount of extra credit for attempting to answer the questions, even when they answer incorrectly.  I usually start the lecture with a Learning Catalytics question focused on the material we covered in the previous day’s lecture, as a way to review the material and remind them what we are working on.

Then throughout the lecture I pose Learning Catalytics questions that may ask them to complete a problem I started to solve for them on the board, find a way to verify that the problem’s solution is correct, or discover some interesting property of the circuit we are analyzing.

The students are solving additional problems, not just watching me solve them, and I am getting real-time feedback that tells me whether or not the topic I’m covering is being understood by the students.

About once every two weeks, I pick a lecture day and turn it into a group problem-solving challenge, again using Learning Catalytics.  The students work together in small self-selected teams to solve several circuit problems.

I wander around the classroom, look over their shoulders, answer questions they ask, and encourage them.  Even though I don’t present this as a competition, they like to compete and see how their team stacks up against the other teams in the class.

They are actively solving problems that are not assigned as homework, and I can observe what material they may be struggling with, so I can adjust my next lecture accordingly.

Pre-lab questions

The Electric Circuits class I teach has an embedded lab.  There are 11 labs during the 16 week semester.  Each lab requires students to complete a pre-lab assignment that they turn in to me for grading two days before the lab.  I return their graded pre-labs within 24 hours so they can correct any errors they made before building the circuits in the lab.

Every pre-lab has two parts – an analysis of one or more circuits, and MultiSim simulation of those same circuits to verify the analytical results.  So again, they are solving additional circuit problems that are not assigned for homework, then simulating those same circuits and eventually building the circuits and acquiring and analyzing data.

Old exams

Students take an in-class exam every 4 weeks.  I make all of my old exams available to them so they can solve the exam problems as a way to study for the upcoming exam.  I never provide my solutions, to encourage them to solve the problems themselves and not merely study problems and their solutions.

They can check their solutions during my office hours and during an evening Study Group I hold the night before the exam.  Again, they are willingly solving lots of additional circuit problems that are not formally assigned in order to prepare to take the exam.

Using the combination of Learning Catalytics, pre-lab assignments, and old exams, I usually get close to my goal of having students solve 20 – 25 circuit problems every week, even though I formally assign about half that number as homework.

Yvonne – What is the biggest challenge students face when taking Circuits?

Susan– Many students struggle with the initial step in solving a circuit – where do I start?  Consider that a simple circuit with a dc source and a few resistors must be described by six or eight independent equations derived from Ohm’s law and the Kirchhoff laws.

This often overwhelms a student seeing circuit analysis for the first time.  Most of my students would be discouraged by the prospect of entering six or eight equations into their calculator correctly to solve for the circuit’s voltages and currents.

So when students finally discover a tool like the node-voltage method, they realize that six or eight equations are not necessary to describe simple circuits.  But many students still need some guidance to use the general-purpose circuit analysis tools.

Yvonne – How do you prepare students to find that starting point?

Susan – To help students first learning to use the general-purpose circuit analysis tools like the node-voltage and mesh-current methods, I have always constructed a step-by-step procedure for them to follow.

The step-by-step procedure tells them what kinds of equations to write (KCL or KVL, for example), how many of these equations to write, where to write those equations in the circuit, and how to check their solutions to those equations by balancing the power in the circuit.

We have now formalized these step-by-step procedures in the 11th Edition of Electric Circuits, where they are called “Analysis Methods.”  The Analysis Methods give students the confidence they need to solve circuit problems because they know how to start the problem and what procedure to follow to reach a solution.

Initially students rely heavily on the Analysis Methods but they eventually need to follow a step-by-step procedure less often, often preferring to take a more intuitive approach.

For most students, following an Analysis Method initially allows them to grasp the circuit analysis concepts faster than students who are not given a step-by-step procedure to follow.  Students using Analysis Methods spend less time trying to decide how to solve a problem because they follow a set of steps.  They finish their assignments faster and endure much less frustration along the way.

Yvonne – What advice would you give to instructors new to teaching Circuits?

Susan – There are so many resources available to instructors teaching Circuits, and a lot of thought and hard work have gone into the design and implementation of these resources.  Instructors should take advantage of as many resources as time allows.

Learning Catalytics is a terrific resource for active learning in the classroom, supplying real-time feedback to instructors that enables them to identify material their students are struggling with.

Mastering Engineering has tutorials that guide students through important material using intelligent feedback to assist their learning, video solutions for many different problems, automated grading for assigned homework, and many other useful features.

Software simulators allow students to study a circuit with changing component values, plot circuit variables of interest, and use many different types of analysis including dc, transient, and ac steady-state. Many students benefit from the virtual laboratory experience that a simulator provides, even if an actual laboratory experience is not available to them.

The more resources an instructor can bring to bear on the Circuits material, the more likely it is that the instructor will align with the various learning styles of all students in the classroom, leading to the success of every student.

Hear directly from Professor Riedel on how you can engage more students in team-based problem solving our upcoming webinar: Using Learning Catalytics Inside and Outside the Circuits Classroom.

 About the Author

Susan Riedel

Professor Susan A. Riedel has been a member of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Marquette University since 1981. She also holds a clinical research appointment in the Department of Orthopaedics at the Medical College of Wisconsin and was a visiting professor in the Bioengineering Unit at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland, as a Fulbright Scholar during the 1989-90 academic year. She has received two awards for teaching excellence at Marquette, and was recognized for her research contributions with an award from the Chicago Unit of the Shriner’s Hospitals.


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