Influences on Student Learning in Engineering: Some Results from Case Study Fieldwork

Article excerpt

1 INTRODUCTION

Currently, there is increased demand for engineers (King, 2008; Taylor, 2008; Engineers Australia, 2006) that is not matched by an increase in student demand for engineering programs. This highlights the importance of maximising retention rates of students in engineering programs. Nationally, the retention rate is 54% (King, 2008); that is, 54% of students who commence an engineering program graduate with an engineering degree. Can we do better than this?

To support and facilitate student success rates and engender active learning, there is a need to have a commitment to identify and respond to any weaknesses in teaching strategies, and in the learning environment in an integrated way.

To retain students and to 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 and supported by thorough data analysis. 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, and 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 also a need to share research results in order to assist in stimulating a productive discussion on the matter.

This paper presents some results of the fieldwork of case studies associated with an Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) Fellowship program. It seeks to bring to the fore the connections between academics' aspirations for their teaching (teaching goals), their teaching approaches in the classroom, their learning styles and those of their students, and link those to possible influences of the academic institution on students' learning.

2 FIELDWORK SETUP

As part of the ALTC Fellowship program, case studies were designed and conducted at three Australian universities, including fieldwork that was carried out on site.

The sites chosen for the case studies reflect a range of institutions whose cultures and demographics could be expected to have an impact on students' abilities to learn how to learn. One of the universities is a technological university (Queensland University of Technology, QUT), one is a traditional "sandstone" university (The University of Melbourne), and one is a regional university (CQUniversity). The program leader at QUT worked closely with two program collaborators at the other universities to ensure consistency in carrying out field work at each site.

The case studies were used to gather and organise a wide range of information, which was then analysed by seeking patterns and themes in the data. A case study protocol (Yin, 2003) containing a set of procedures and general rules was devised and followed. The case study protocol considered the objectives and issues to be investigated, and the research questions to be addressed. Procedures for identifying and gathering information were also put in place to support the conduct of the program, and to ensure the achievement of its intended objectives.

At each university, a call for participation of academic staff was made via information sheets, discussions and presentations. These varied depending on the circumstances of each institution. The timing for conducting the studies was largely determined by semester schedules, and staff and student timetables.

The program leader was in direct communication with colleagues at QUT via formal and informal meetings and discussions. He was assisted by a program officer who communicated with all involved, and organised and kept track of activities. …