In 1967, six years after the first students commenced their studies at Monash, the first year timetable included four common subjects – Chemistry, Engineering, Mathematical Methods, and Physics. The entire timetable occupied less than half a page in the student handbook. The timetable changed gradually over the coming decades, at first splitting into two groups or streams to accommodate increased student numbers and then, slowly introducing additional engineering subjects. By 1994, the timetables in the specially produced information booklet for students of engineering spanned eight pages.
The expansion of the subjects offered by the Faculty of Engineering went hand in hand with developments in approaches to teaching within the Faculty. The group of senior lecturers who were appointed in the early 1960s were responsible for the earliest teaching within the Faculty – each teaching to their specific area/s of expertise as the course progressed from a common first year to the students’ choice of engineering specialty in second, third and fourth years.
Former students and staff in the early days of the Faculty refer to the style of teaching as being essentially ‘chalk and talk’. Lecture theatres were large, student numbers were similarly so, and lecturers and professors generally delivered their course content from the front of the room while writing notes and formulae on the black board.
Bill Brown, an early appointee to the Department of Electrical Engineering, recalls that Jack Phillips, one of the first Senior Lecturers to be appointed, set an exceptionally high standard of teaching in the department. Many former students recall the quality of lecturing and the expertise of Engineering’s academic staff in these early years. Some found their lecturers ‘inspirational’ and others commented that they were ‘exceptionally talented’. However, other students also recall that the quality of teaching could be fairly ad hoc. One former student from the early 1970s commented that lecturers varied in quality with some lectures being ‘rough and ready’ as they attempted to cover too much content too quickly.
Clearly, some lecturers were better than others, which had a direct impact on the quality of teaching and learning within the Faculty. Former Dean Peter Darvall commented that as an academic staff member in the Faculty in the early days, there was little in the way of formal training in how to teach and deliver lectures. As he recalls, training was ‘minimal, and I think that none of the Heads of Departments believed [in] it. I think they believed that if you had advanced degrees, and if you'd done research, then you would be able to lecture.’ Robert Gani, another pioneering staff member of the Faculty has similar recollections. He remembers that
as a new academic you're not prepared, generally, in techniques of teaching. At the time that we joined Monash you were a good researcher, and teaching was just a job that you did because it came with the job. The techniques of teaching were something new.
In an attempt to address this lack of training and preparation for the demands of teaching, several academic staff members in the Faculty of Engineering began to push for change. Robert Gani and Peter Darvall were two of them. They, together with other academics in Engineering, sought specialist teacher training from Monash University’s Higher Education Advisory and Research Unit (HEARU). Through HEARU they received direction and training in matters like dealing with large classes, differing learning speeds and attention spans, and the importance of preparation. While not all staff undertook these courses, those who did, found the benefits to their teaching immeasurable. Commenting on the importance of teacher training, Peter Darvall noted that teaching is more than reciting a body of theory or writing equations on a board. However, in these early days there was little encouragement from Faculty and departmental leadership to seek additional training in teaching.
Current Associate Dean (Teaching) Gary Codner believes that the Faculty’s attitude to teaching has changed drastically over the years. Now, he feels/indicates, the Faculty is much more student centered. According to Darvall, the beginnings of this attitudinal change can be traced back to Lance Endersbee, who took over from Foundation Dean Ken Hunt in the mid 1970s. Endersbee attempted to increase the flexibility of the undergraduate engineering courses and place a greater emphasis on quality teaching and flexibility. The rigid structure of engineering teaching and education across Australia was pointed out in the Williams Review of Engineering Education in 1988. Monash performed quite highly in the review. Nevertheless, there was still much work to be done in the Faculty.
When Darvall became Dean he continued Endersbee’s emphasis and sought to address the criticisms of engineering education that came out of the Williams Report. By the early 1990s the University, as well as the Faculty, began to increase its focus on quality teaching. Another former staff member Brendan Parker commented that ‘Monash had policies on improved teaching long before many universities … things that we established at Monash in 1990 still aren't fully entrenched at other universities’.
Gary Codner comments that in the past five or six years an even stronger emphasis on high quality teaching has been seen. According to Codner, teaching is now ‘firmly on the agenda’. Student evaluations are conducted for every subject or unit taught in each semester, increasing the centrality of students and their needs to teaching in the Faculty. Codner comments that this evaluation means that the Faculty can respond to both good and bad teaching.
There's always been good teachers – let's not say that suddenly we've now got good teachers – there always were. There was good teaching because the individuals wanted to do it; the bad teaching went unpunished, and now it doesn't.
In the 50 years since the first students enrolled in the inaugural Bachelor of Engineering at Monash, the Faculty has undergone a gradual but significant evolution in teaching – from large ‘chalk and talk’ lectures to more specialised department specific subjects. An increased emphasis on the importance of quality student-led teaching, coupled with improved teacher training and the rapid advancement of technology in the classroom, has made excellence in teaching a proud reality.
Reflections on engineering staff|