Exploring Synergies between Learning and Teaching in Engineering: A Case Study Approach

Article excerpt

1 INTRODUCTION

One of the major challenges currently facing Australia is the skill shortage in engineers (Engineers Australia, 2006). In a media release ahead of the Australian Technology Network of Universities conference, held in Perth in 2008, the Chief Executive of Engineers Australia (Taylor, 2008) warned that there is an estimated shortfall of more than 20,000 professional engineers to meet current demand in Australia.

The final report on the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) funded project sponsored by the Australian Council of Engineering Deans (ACED) pointed out that there is increasing and widespread concern that the current high demand for engineering graduates is not being met by corresponding increases in student demand for engineering education programs (King, 2008).

Considering retention rates of engineering students and based on data obtained from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) via Engineers Australia, the report indicated that the likelihood of successful graduation from a bachelor level engineering program is about 52% for male Australian engineering students and 60% for female students, on average.

Therefore, while there is increased demand for engineers, it is not being matched by an increase in the demand for engineering programs. At the same time, of the small numbers entering engineering programs, only a shockingly low percentage actually graduate. This means that, more than ever before, maximising retention rates of students in engineering programs is of critical importance.

To support and facilitate student success rates and engender active learning, there is a need to have a commitment to identify and respond to weaknesses in teaching, as well as student understanding, within a cohesive and comprehensive program.

To retain students and evaluate the success or otherwise of their programs, universities routinely conduct surveys and collect data. However, it is vital to have sophisticated program evaluations that are well documented with thorough analysis of the data they provide. It has been observed that in data collected via the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ), students may rate all aspects of teaching as being of high quality, yet they score the whole course/program's experience as being poor. Such a dichotomy highlights the need to have a closer look at survey questions, other feedback and data collection mechanisms to gain insights into factors affecting engineering students' perceptions of quality teaching, and to discover the reasons that contribute to their success. There is a need to share research results in order to assist in engendering a productive discussion on the matter.

This paper presents an overview and some results of an ALTC Fellowship program being undertaken to bridge the gap between students and academic staff in engineering. The program aims at enhancing the learning experience and learning outcomes of engineering students, and embedding enabling strategies and processes for engaging engineering students and staff, systematically. It focuses on exploring synergies between learning and teaching. The paper reports on a case study approach for investigating the interactions between the learning styles of students on the one hand, and the teaching styles of academics, their teaching practices, and their teaching philosophies, on the other.

2 LEARNING AND TEACHING STYLES

Research shows that students are characterised by significantly different learning styles: they preferentially focus on different types of information, tend to operate on perceived information in different ways, and achieve understanding at different rates. The work of Felder & Silverman (1988) on learning and teaching styles in that discipline is a relevant example of the value-adding the discipline-based approach continues to deliver for engineering. Students whose learning styles are compatible with the teaching style of a staff member tend to retain information longer, apply it more effectively, and have more positive post-course attitudes toward the subject than do their counterparts who experience learning/teaching style mismatches (Felder, 1993). …