Ever since the establishment of the first engineering courses in Australia at the universities of Sydney and Melbourne in the 1880s, one of the main features of these professional degrees has been existence of "service courses" (Selleck, 2004; Turney et al, 1991). Service courses are compulsory in various degrees, which are delivered and administered by academic staff from other departments or faculties other than those of the home degree. The place of these courses in various degrees is unique and so are the teaching and learning challenges they entail. In this paper we outline the pedagogical reform of an electrical engineering service course undertaken at the University of Sydney. Anecdotal evidence from staff involved in teaching service courses in the engineering faculty noted problems associated with (i) dealing with a mass group of students from such a diverse population, including ability, different home degrees, motivations and backgrounds; (ii) establishing the relevance of the course to the students' degree; and (iii) delivering the required curriculum within a tight time frame.
Surprisingly there is very little research that has dealt with service courses, especially when one notes the proliferation of service courses in the tertiary sector. There are a few exceptions such as Gordon (2004), who illuminated the negative attitudes of psychology students who undertook statistics who were exacerbated by the "challenges of service course delivery" (p. 41). Students in statistics service courses have conceptions of statistics that tend to focus on mastery of material, tools and process, rather than critical thinking, and they also reported a low willingness to learn and surface approach to learning.
The lack of effectiveness of service courses appears to be unrelated to discipline or profession. Dogan (2004) concluded that students who enrolled in mathematics service courses from fields, including engineering, reported that they were "not prepared or at best ill-prepared" (p. 673). The consequence was that "they are so lost in much of the abstraction of concepts that even the simplest ideas become difficult to comprehend, and this often leads to discouragement, high stress, burn out, and, as a result, high failure rate" (Dogan, 2004, p. 675). Georgakis & Rennick (2006), who traced the history of physical education in Australian universities, concluded that a significant number of students "dropped out" of their physical education degree, especially in year 1, due to issues associated with undertaking science service courses such as biology, which students perceived as having very little bearing to their physical education degree. Fisher et al (2004) suggested that service courses have been overlooked by educational research and are therefore a prime target for effective reform research.
This lack of research into service courses has not been reflected in other aspects of engineering education where there is a burgeoning literature. In the last decade there has been rapid development in Australian engineering teaching and learning. Many of these developments have been published in the Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, which, since its first appearance in 1991, has presented research at the forefront of engineering education. Engineering researchers have acknowledged the importance played by issues such as "research-led teaching", "scholarship of teaching" and "student-centered research" in teaching and learning. The publication of such research is important to the engineering field for a number of reasons; the most important being the delivery of more effective courses and degrees, and therefore the improvement of university graduates entering the engineering profession. In recent years this focus has developed under pressure from university governing bodies, government authorities and other stakeholders. Bradley (2005) and Felder & Brent (2005) noted the impact that accreditation requirements have had on engineering education, while government funding pressures have also been highlighted (Department of Education, Science and Training, 2005). Service courses can be considered as foundational to professional understanding, and should be subject to the same pressures and reform initiatives as other aspects of engineering.
Much of Australian engineering education research has focused on the "scholarship of teaching"; that is educators researching their own teaching and learning practices. In particular the theme of pedagogical reform has been pronounced (see for example Stappendelt, 2010; Gibbings et al, 2010; Maier, 2007; Le & Tam, 2007; Viiri, 2003). This research has highlighted the opportunities available to renew and improve engineering education, through course evaluation and reflective practice. Many studies have utilised standard course experience questionnaire data, like the USE (Unit of Study Evaluation), in order to analyse and address the challenges of engineering education. For example, Calvo et al (2010) used a standardised student feedback questionnaire over a seven-year period to explore issues and factors associated with student learning and overall student satisfaction; they found that smaller class sizes and coordinators' professional development were "all significantly correlated with higher student satisfaction and better learning experiences" (p. 144). The shift toward utilising student evaluations reflects a broader trend to consider student perspectives in more student-focused teaching. Consistent with this has been studies examining students' approaches to learning. The evaluation presented here adopts both approaches, utilising student course evaluations and assessing student approaches to study, using the Study Processes Questionnaire (SPQ) (Biggs et al, 2001) in order to evaluate service course reform within a student-centered model of teaching and learning.
The aim of this research was not only to highlight improvements made to one particular service course but, more importantly, to document the process in which this improvement occurred. Although service courses present challenges that may be unique in terms of scale and combination, these same challenges are seen across engineering education, and more widely. Therefore the logic and educational theory that informs the course improvement should be applicable to a range of contexts.
In Australian universities engineering service courses are administered to introduce students to the diversity of engineering specialisations and, therefore, potential study majors. As such their aim is to introduce each student to the foundations of that specialisation and to demonstrate the range of study available within the specialism. Additionally engineering service courses are also seen as foundation courses for skills that may be required by workplaces that impose diverse professional demands upon engineers. As a broad professional discipline, engineering students are required to both focus on a specific professional specialisation, such as (mechanical, aerospace, electrical, information, civil or chemical, etc.), but also to develop an appreciation of the body of knowledge within other engineering specialisations. In order to build up this broad knowledge of engineering, students are required to undertake service courses. These service courses also take place in the first two years of a students' candidature, at a time when, as Calvo et al (2010) noted in their study, student satisfaction was the lowest in the first two years of an engineering degree. Earlier research has documented extremely poor rates of retention in first year engineering (Budny et al, 1997).
At the University of Sydney, where this research was undertaken, the electrical engineering service courses were historically delivered in two units of study, during the first two years of student candidature and named "Electrical Engineering Foundations". Student evaluations and feedback illuminated low levels of satisfaction and learning.
First, there was a crowded curriculum and, as a standard unit of study, the workload was far too high. In fact the two previous units were simply collapsed into one large unit of study covering principles of electrical engineering; from basic circuit analysis to power engineering, from electromechanical energy conversion to analogue and digital electronics. These topics are normally learned by electrical engineering students in several separate courses, over several semesters. In the service course, non-electrical engineering students have to learn them all in one single course in their second year. Ramsden (2003) argued that such a "cramped curriculum" is a barrier to deeper levels of learning. The size of the curriculum is a critical issue in engineering education and a mismatch between teachers' and students' information processing capacity may have accounted for the excessive content seen in engineering courses.
Second, the assessment occurred primarily at the end of the semester with a large final exam that was worth 70%, and this was felt to encourage surface approaches to learning; many students reported heavy last-minute "cramming" for the exam. The end of semester examination resulted in almost 50% of the students failing the exam. Although assessment has been an area of recent reform in engineering education (Spurlin et al, 2008), like many classes this course was dominated by "high stakes", summative assessment practices. Prosser & Trigwell (1999) noted that lecturers who perceived their classes as being too large also adopted pedagogy that was more teacher-centered than student-centered.
Third and finally, attendance at lectures, often as low of 20%, suggested that students did not value the lectures. End of course focus group interviews with students made it clear that many did not recognise the relevance of the course to their degree or professional development. The students' dispositions to learning in this service course are also quite varied and different from those in the major professional courses, even for the same group of students. Many students had only limited interest in the "non-major" areas, like electrical engineering. The background of the students in the non-major area varied greatly and was frequently reported as weak; some students had some relevant knowledge from their high school physics studies, and others have none. This presented challenges in terms of providing clear and attainable learning outcomes for the course. It was clear that this service course was ripe for reform.
The process of reform was governed by the following: higher education teaching and learning literature, staff reflection, and student evaluation--both qualitative (focus group interview) and quantitative (questionnaires). This process highlighted a number of problems and it was agreed that the following reforms would need to be introduced: (i) modularisation of the service course into three related but relatively independent blocks; (ii) introduction of formative assessment where students would be given feedback on two assessment tasks prior to final assessment; and (iii) an adoption of Biggs (1999) constructive alignment theory whereby outcomes, teaching practices, pedagogy and assessment were all aligned.
Once introduced, the reformed service course was evaluated in its first year; firstly, by the distribution of the standard university USE questionnaire; secondly by questionnaires customised to focus on the specific reform strategies; and thirdly, by SPQ (Biggs et al, 2001). The data within the questionnaires enabled staff to review the course effectiveness in three ways: using standard student satisfaction ratings (USE), using reform specific data (customised questionnaires) and by reflecting on the relationships between these measures and student approaches to study (SPQ). In particular we were able to examine if satisfaction with the reforms was associated with deep approaches to study.
The SPQ, developed by Biggs (1987a; 1987b), draws on the information processing model of Craik & Lockhart (1972). Their "levels of processing" model proposed that the depth of active processing in the original learning would determine the nature and extent of subsequent memory of the episode. Biggs identified two central postulates in their model. Firstly, that deep cognitive coding relies upon semantic analysis that is more meaningful and therefore more durable than surface codes, which are non-semantic and rely upon superficial processing. Secondly, that processing of codes, or learning, is not limited by capacity but is primarily determined by the depth of processing applied. By placing this understanding within a framework that recognised that individual learners react in a way that is typical for them, as well as in a way determined by a particular context (Biggs, 1987a, p. 2), Biggs theorised that processing strategies, both deep and surface, might be identified and studied within different educational contexts. The SPQ was developed to examine students self-reported approaches to learning. The questionnaire provides sub-scales for both deep and surface approaches to learning. In this study we use the SPQ to check that our reforms were associated with a shift toward deep learning.
3 FOCUS OF REFORM
3.1 Modularised curriculum
The first discussion of reform centered on issues related to the subject matter and its relevance to students. In particular important considerations included: the need to stimulate students' interest in this different, non-major engineering discipline, so that they understand its applicability to their own engineering discipline major; the need to guide students in understanding the basic concepts; and very importantly, avoid falling into purely, unnecessary technical details such as is required for students majoring in electrical engineering. Ramsden (2003, p. 132) had noted:
Anyone who has ever done any academic research will be aware of the devastating influence on the quality of output of an excessive number of small but different demands on one's time. The inevitable result of too much busy work is that many students adopt minimising strategies and complete their courses with sketchy and confused knowledge of the topics they have 'learned'.
There is a clear conflict between the coverage desired by the faculty and the ability of efficient students to learn the material in a limited time. In the past, the breadth of the course caused not only difficulties in student understanding, but also confusion among students about what they really needed to learn. This theme was noted by Gardiner (1993, p. 24) who noted that:
The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage--I can't repeat that often enough. Obviously, if people took this aphorism seriously, there would be a total revolution in education, and 95 per cent of what educators do every day would have to be changed.
This was the basis of the concept of modularisation and further decentralisation in assessment for this service course. The modularisation was also necessary before assessment practice could be revised. It was proposed that the revised course would be compartmentalised into three parallel and discrete blocks which introduced structure and focus. The three blocks were:
1. Introduction to Electric Circuits--current and voltage, power, Kirchhoff's Laws, sources and resistors, Ohm's Law, series and parallel connections, voltage and current divider, equivalent circuits. Inductors and capacitors in RC, RL circuits, introduction to RLC circuits.
2. Electric Power Systems--sinusoidal signals, effective (rms) value of sinusoids, concept of impedance, power in ac circuits, transformer principles and ideal transformers, balanced three-phase circuits. Electromechanical machine types, introduction to DC machines and AC machines.
3. Basic Electronics--Op amp, inverting amplifier, non-inverting amplifier, other op-amp circuits. Digital signals and circuit, truth table and basic logic functions, Boolean function, digital circuit design and realisation. Introduction to microprocessors, example of instructions.
Each of the blocks dealt with a central topic with a group of relatively closely connected concepts. The lecturer and the students needed to establish a concept centred teaching and learning strategy. Students were required to understand the basic electrical engineering concepts and to demonstrate their understanding through basic problem solving. With no focus on comprehensive electrical engineering techniques and complex problems, it was envisaged that students would be able take a deeper approach to learning. This philosophy is not new, as Whitehead (1967, p. 2) noted:
We enunciate two educational commandments, 'Do not teach too many subjects,'and again, 'What you do teach, teach thoroughly.' The result of teaching small parts of a large number of subjects is the passive reception of disconnected ideas, not illumined with any spark of vitality. Let the main ideas which are introduced into a child's education be few and important, and let them be thrown into every combination possible. The child should make them his own, and should understand their application here and now in the circumstances of his actual life.
Modularisation on its own could be seen as a risky reform: because it could lead to shallow learning in a fragmented curriculum. To counter this risk the three modules were specifically designed with the following principles in mind:
* lectures and tutorials were strategically designed to address the revised learning objectives
* cohesion between readings, lectures and tutorials was developed in order to encourage deeper levels of learning and to counter the risk of surface learning due to the modularisation
* assessment was structurally aligned with the overall learning objectives and curriculum (ie. it focused on assessing generic student abilities and attributes rather than content focused curricula)
* Assessment should be formative. Although individual modules are assessed separately, assessment feedback for each is of a quality that it informs learning in the subsequent module (ie. not content oriented feedback, but related to student learning in general).
3.2 Formative assessment and constructive alignment
The traditional purpose of assessment in engineering is primarily to ensure that students have the knowledge and skills to practice engineering. Assessment is used to check that learning has occurred and secondly, to allow for grading that reflects the level of learning. However, another purpose of assessment is to motivate students to learn and to encourage them to think about what they have learnt (Parsons, 2007; Hansen, 2004). Conceptualised this way assessment can be viewed as a tool for teaching and learning (Spurlin et al, 2008). In their editorial, Graaff & Rompelman (2004, p. 121) wrote:
For a long time assessment of student learning results has been regarded by many as a minor issue to be taken care of after the important teaching tasks are over. However, awareness is growing that assessment methods are an integral aspect of the engineering curriculum, allowing both teachers and students to gain insight into the learning results of a course. Depending on the type of assessment method and the timing, assessment can fulfill different functions in an educational programme.
Therefore the most crucial pedagogical reform of this course was related to assessment. Ramsden (2003, p. 179) noted: "It is quite usual for lecturers to regard assessment as having a purely 'summative' function (serving to report students) and as having nothing to do with teaching them at all." This approach was taken in this service course. The two-hour, closed-book end-of-semester examination served as only a grading mechanism with little positive impact on student learning in this course. The drawbacks on examination have been highlighted by a number of scholars, including Parsons (2007, p. 21) who noted:
Examinations are commonly used at the end of the teaching periods as major components of assessment for external engineering students because they are the only assessment mechanism that examiners can be reasonably sure are completed by students acting alone. However, the literature suggests that examinations are flawed instruments of assessment for many reasons, not least because they encourage poor approaches to learning, but also because they do not allow useful feedback to students.
In focus groups students reported that at the later stage of the course, after many weakly-connected (if not isolated) aspects and disciplines had been introduced; the concepts introduced at the beginning of the course appeared so remote that students had difficulty connecting them with the materials currently being studied. The signal sent to students was that the reward was limited even if they had a deep understanding of the topic at the beginning of the course because they would almost have forgotten it when it came to the examination. At the end, purely for the purpose of the examination, students just gathered pieces of information and tried to memorise the steps for solving most possible examination questions. Many researchers have pointed out that assessment holds the key to student perceptions of learning and understanding (Dochy & Moerkerke, 1997). As Hargreaves (1997, p. 403) put it:
Assessment is vitally important to students and exerts a major influence on their approach to learning. Assessment procedures should therefore promote and reward the achievement of desired learning outcomes. Teaching, learning and assessment are inextricably linked.
Accordingly assessment was reformed to fit the modularised structure and to spread the assessment across the semester, the two-hour examination was split into three tests; one immediately after each block is concluded. The aim of this change was to focus student learning on clear learning outcomes for each block and to reduce the pressure of handling the massive amount of material at the end of the semester. Students should build up confidence in learning and conceptual understanding of what electrical engineering is over the three modules and tests. The results and feedback from early examination(s) should inform the learning behavior of students in subsequent modules.
In this evaluation study we surveyed students in order to review the success of the reforms. We addressed two research questions: (i) what is the overall level of student satisfaction with the reformed course? and, (ii) were the course reforms associated with deep or surface approaches to learning? The modularisation of the course ran the risk of encouraging more surface approaches by fragmenting the curriculum and analysis was needed to examine if this had happened.
Eighty-eight students were enrolled in the unit, four withdrew and 84 completed the course. These students were asked to complete a course evaluation including the following: (i) a standard USE; (ii) a customised questionnaire on the unit reforms (modularisation and assessment); and (iii) the SPQ by Biggs (1987a). Students were surveyed in their final class, the questionnaires were distributed and collected by a research officer, not a member of the academic staff, and students were assured of confidentiality.
Data was collected from 82 students. Complete data sets were returned for 97% of students on the customised reforms questionnaire, 79% on the USE and 95% on the SLQ. This represents a 79% to 95% response rate. The gender balance was 57 male and 25 female. The age range spanned 18-35 years, with more than 80% of students aged 19 or 20. Data was analysed using PASW (formally SPSS) to explore student satisfaction, report on the reforms, and the relationship between these and student approaches to study (deep and surface). Factor analysis was used to calculate deep and surface scores for each student. Multiple linear regression analysis was used to determine what elements of the course evaluation and which approaches to study best predicted overall satisfaction.
4.1 Instruments and analysis
* The university uses the USE to routinely evaluate courses by examining student satisfaction ratings. The questionnaire has 12 items. There are eight standard items and four faculty designated items. These items are analysed individually and included as potential predictors of deep learning approaches in linear multiple regression analysis.
* A short Customised Reform Evaluation questionnaire asked students to rate their response to the course reforms (See table 1). The reforms were presented as "modularisation". Descriptive analysis is provided and items were also included as independent/predictor variables in linear multiple regression analysis.
* We used a version of the SPQ, the R-SPQ-2F,
based on Kember (1999) argument that there was a case for two versions of the SPQ, one for teaching evaluation and development, another for research applications. The students responded to 20 statements by indicating their agreement or disagreement along a 5-point scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree). Statements related to deep (eg. while I am studying, I think of real life situations to which the material that I am learning would be useful ) and surface (eg. my aim is to pass the course while doing as little work as possible) study approaches.
The R-SPQ_2F, demonstrates the same factor structure as the 42-item version (Fox et al, 2001) with acceptable alpha values for the deep (0.73) and surface (0.64) scales. Confirmatory factor analysis indicates a good fit to the intended two-factor structure, with a comparative fit index value of 0.992 and a standardised root mean squared residual value of 0.015 (Biggs et al, 2001). The data were treated according to recommendations by Biggs et al (2001), and scale sub-scores, surface and deep, were calculated accordingly.
From the USE satisfaction findings we found that overall 71% of students reported that they were either "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the unit. Female students reported higher levels of satisfaction (see figure 1).
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Satisfaction on the five items directly assessing the success of the reforms is detailed in table 1. Overall there is majority agreement that the modularisation approach: helped students learn, reduced exam anxiety, increased student confidence in learning, helped student to learn more efficiently and that it made a difference to overall learning in the unit. The USE also confirmed that the majority of students were completing the course only because it was mandatory: only nine students reported that they did the course for other reasons.
We also examined the relationship between reported satisfaction with the course and the students' scores on deep and surface approaches to learning from the SPQ. The relationship is illustrated in figure 2.
A regression analysis confirms the trend seen in figure 2. Using "Overall Course Satisfaction" as the dependent variable, a multiple regression model was constructed. All other course evaluation items, and the deep and surface approaches to learning factor scores were included as independent, predictor variables. Regression analyses were repeated, while removing the least significant variables, until a final set of statistically significant predictors of satisfaction was achieved. The resultant model explains 78% of the variance in overall student satisfaction scores.
The statistically significant predictors of overall satisfaction are, in order: "teaching in this subject helped me to learn effectively" (std. Beta = 0.55, p < 0.05); "it was clear to me that staff were responsive to student feedback" (std. Beta = 0.24, p < 0.05); surface learning factor score (negative association, std. Beta = 0.22, p < 0.05); "I can see the relevance of the unit to my degree" (std. Beta = 0.16, p < 0.05); and "positive response to modularisation" (std. Beta = 0.11, p < 0.05).
The strongest overall predictor of satisfaction was reported on the quality of teaching in the unit, the responsiveness of staff to student feedback also shows a strong effect. Students who reported that they could see the relevance of the unit to their degree were also more likely to report overall satisfaction, as were those who gave a positive response to the course modularisation (an index score based on three items). Importantly there is a negative relationship between surface approaches to learning and overall course satisfaction. This suggests that students with more surface learning approaches were not likely to be satisfied with the unit of study.
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
McAuliffe et al (2009, p. 13) noted that, even though engineering teaching and learning had become a visible part of the tertiary engineering, there was still much to do be done:
Universities are making serious moves toward improving the quality of teaching and learning especially in undergraduate education. However, even with ongoing research and new innovations in these areas, problems still remain in teaching and learning in undergraduate engineering programs. With the restructuring of degrees, there is still a large amount of material to impart in a necessarily restricted time; the fundamental skills that are absolutely essential for future engineering graduates. In some cases, the temptation to simplify complex problems, passing over intellectual challenges, is often overwhelming; alternatively, it is also difficult to justify trialling novel and "risky educational techniques on core curriculum material, for fear of failure and repercussions in student feedback, as well as in accreditation of both students and the courses.
The issue of a cramped curriculum remains dominant in debates about engineering education. The underlying theme of the course reform presented here was to promote deeper approaches to learning and to guide students in building up basic concepts of electrical engineering, rather than the detailed techniques covered in the professional electrical engineering units. The decision to downsize and restructure the curricula was a difficult one, so often the decision goes the other way and new curricula are added. However, our analysis suggests that cutting and modularising curriculum is associated with deeper approaches to learning. The changes also provided both teachers and students with a clearer perspective on learning objectives and effective learning strategies: shifting perspectives from "assessment of learning" towards "assessment for learning".
This paper has described the process in which pedagogical reform and innovation was undertaken in engineering service course. While there has been renewed emphasis in university engineering teaching and learning in the last decade, there has been very little attention on issues related to service courses, especially considering they form a large and obvious element of university teaching and learning. This paper has highlighted this as an area of need, addressed some of this neglect and perhaps may act as a road map for academics thinking of developing more student centred teaching and learning practices in service courses. Importantly this road map reflects more general shifts in teaching and learning, namely: revision of curricula and learning aims; implementation of formative assessment and feedback to strengthen learning; and the consideration of student satisfaction and approaches to learning as determining factors in a more student focused approach. Engineering as a profession has always been diverse with a range of career paths and engineering roles. A student focused approach is necessary if educators are to prepare a diverse student body, for diverse professional roles and if engineering education is to continue to progress, bold reforms of curricula and assessment need to be attempted and evaluated in a cycle of constant improvement.
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Dr Rachel Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Educational Assessment & Research Methodology at the University of Sydney. Rachel has degrees in psychology, audiology, teaching, research methods and higher education. She completed her doctorate at Oxford University as part of a longitudinal study of child development. She has published on educational research across all educational sectors. Rachel is a passionate university teacher and frequently collaborates on teaching and learning projects with colleagues from other disciplines.
Dr Steve Georgakis is Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney. He has published on various issues and topics related to tertiary education teaching and learning including pedagogy, student experiences and learning outcomes. He is also the author of over 40 publications including books, journal articles and book chapters, and has also completed a Masters of Education (Higher Education).
Xiheng Hu recently retired and is now an honorary Senior Lecturer in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at the University of Sydney. He holds degrees in engineering and education and has longstanding interests in engineering education, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. His other interests include dynamical systems and control, control systems,
R Wilson ([dagger]), S Georgakis and X Hu
University of Sydney, New South Wales
* Paper D10-105 submitted 10/09/10; accepted for publication after review and revision 3/02/11.
([dagger]) Corresponding author Dr Rachel Wilson can be contacted at email@example.com.
Table 1: Success of modularisation. % "Modularisation" of the contents disagree strongly 0.0 (division into 3 blocks) helps disagree somewhat 2.5 me in learning not sure 7.4 agree somewhat 25.9 agree strongly 64.2 "Modularisation" of assessment disagree strongly 0.0 reduced my level of exam disagree somewhat 4.9 anxiety not sure 14.6 agree somewhat 28.0 agree strongly 52.4 "Modularisation" of assessment disagree strongly 0.0 increased my confidence in disagree somewhat 7.3 learning not sure 17.1 agree somewhat 25.4 agree strongly 40.2 "Modularisation" helped me to disagree strongly 1.2 learn more efficiently disagree somewhat 3.7 not sure 15.9 agree somewhat 47.6 agree strongly 31.7 "Modularisation" did not make disagree strongly 31.3 much difference to my learning disagree somewhat 42.5 not sure 15.0 agree somewhat 8.8 agree strongly 2.5…