Creating More Opportunities for Active and Hands-on Learning in the Engineering Core Curriculum

Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
College of Design and Engineering (CDE)

Suraj discusses how he and his co-lecturer redesigned a Year 3 core module to give students more opportunities to participate in hands-on active learning throughout the course.

round table discussion
Image courtesy of Getty Images
Vasudevan, S. (2022, Oct 30). Creating more opportunities for active and hands-on learning in the Engineering core curriculum. Teaching Connections.


The College of Design and Engineering (CDE), as part of its efforts to enhance incoming freshmen’s experience in their courses, has implemented more hands-on and practical learning modules in Year 1 in order to cultivate an active and collaborative learning environment. It is likewise as important to ensure students in the subsequent years also get opportunities to engage in active learning. With this in mind, my co-lecturer Professor Shamsuzzaman Farooq and I redesigned CN3132 “Separation Processes”, an important Year 3 core module that covers the design of unit operations at the heart of the chemical process industry.

CN3132 has a good blend of heavy concepts, and systematic and extensive design procedures. That said, students have traditionally found CN3132 challenging and difficult. In the usual weekly lecture-tutorial format (i.e. 3-hour lecture and 1-hour tutorial per week), we would quickly solve two to three problems during the tutorials and subsequently have insufficient time for discussion and reflection. To actively engage students and improve attainment of the module learning outcomes, we implemented a new approach to teaching this module from Academic Year (AY) 2019/20.

Module Redesign

The crucial aspect of the revamped module is increasing the number of tutorial hours to two per week and the corresponding reduction in lecture hours to two per week, thus keeping the same total contact time of four hours per week. The 2-hour tutorial sessions enable us to focus on step-by-step problem solving where we take great effort to relate each problem back to important concepts covered in the lectures. Thus, most of the consolidation of learning takes place during the tutorials. The tutorials are held in active learning rooms to facilitate fruitful interaction between students as they solve problems together with us. These rooms have round tables that seat six students per table; this configuration facilitates better student interaction and promotes active discussion when solving problems. We do not distribute solution handouts in order to promote hands-on problem-solving.

The live 2-hour lectures are supplemented with meticulously prepared pre-lecture videos that cover the basics for each topic and sometimes even the entire topic (see Figure 1 for a sample pre-lecture video). This helps with better comprehension when these topics are revised/covered again during the lectures.

Figure 1. An example of a pre-lecture video segment for CN3132.

We thus employ multiple avenues to engage students with concepts, namely, pre-lecture videos, live lectures and hands-on tutorials.

Amongst the teaching team, we also pay great attention to coordinate the lecture content and ensure that our respective parts are in sync. Care is taken to constantly revise the slides and present material in a more palatable way. For example, we make an effort to link the different topics and concepts (as shown in Figure 2), which presents the similarities and differences between the design procedures for two unit operations. Such links enable the students to comprehend and retain the main ideas and concepts well.

Figure 2. A snapshot of module content presented in a more palatable way that facilitates better comprehension and retention.

Student Feedback

This ‘refreshing’ approach of conducting a core module has been well appreciated by students over the past three AYs, as evidenced by the following excerpts from the module feedback:

student feedback


Ideally, we expect students to take charge of their learning and prepare in advance for classes by watching the pre-lecture videos before attending the live lectures and attempting tutorial problems. However, typically only 30-40% of the student cohort are actively involved in the learning process, and these are the students who respond positively in surveys and student feedback. In fact, 30% of them (on average) never watch the pre-lecture videos throughout the semester. An exception is for one fully online topic that had a graded online quiz at the start of the live lecture. We are currently contemplating whether to introduce more such online quizzes. Meanwhile, we find it challenging to compare examination performance before and after the implementation of this approach due to varying dynamics of every cohort. This is because the intake cut-offs are constantly changing; however, the 90th percentile still remains quite good. This means we have students with varied capabilities. This is reflected in similar average scores even with easier tests and exams in recent years, with improved performance of the brighter students and rapidly declining performance of the weaker students.

In spite of the above challenges, the 2-hour tutorial format clearly helped the more proactive students within the cohort hone their problem-solving skills and better prepare them in the long run for the workforce. We would definitely recommend this format for other core modules. Some actions we considered for future iterations include incorporating a class attendance/participation component to incentivise students, and more online tests on the pre-lecture videos. However, we are considering the former measure carefully, as we are personally of the opinion that learning should come naturally from the students rather than being forced upon them.


Suraj VASUDEVAN is a Senior Lecturer with the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, College of Design and Engineering (ChBE@CDE). He has more than 10 years of teaching experience and is very passionate about actively engaging students in learning. He has been awarded the NUS Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) in 2019 and 2021, ATEA (Team) in 2022 as a team member, and Engineering Educator Award in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Suraj can be reached at



I would like to acknowledge my former NUS lecturer and current colleague Professor Shamsuzzaman Farooq. We co-teach CN3132 “Separation Processes” and jointly redesigned the module.

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