Student perceptions of complexity in engineering education

Publication Type:
Conference Proceeding
SEFI 47th Annual Conference: Varietas Delectat... Complexity is the New Normality, Proceedings, 2020, pp. 1576-1584
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The complex and socially connected nature of modern engineering practice is well documented, motivating new approaches to engineering education across the globe. The challenge now is to bring about change at scale to traditional curricula [1]. The University of Sydney has implemented a core program designed to improve students' learning and preparation for professional practice. The program seeks to help students develop an appreciation of complexity in engineering practice and illustrate its interdisciplinary, connected nature. The program serves a cohort of ~800 commencing students annually and is delivered within the bounds of a traditional program structured in units of study. Standardised student satisfaction survey results have been below or well below faculty average, indicating that on this measure, a majority of students are not satisfied with their learning experience. To better understand why, student comments on these surveys were analysed through the lens of the Cynefin framework, a sense-making tool that provides a useful characterisation of complexity experienced in professional engineering [2, 3]. Analysis suggest students may be aligned along a continuum between two positions in regard to the perceived degree of complexity in the learning experience: Comfortable with complexity - Those who recognise and adopt strategies needed to succeed in complex projects; and, Resistance to complexity - Those who see the learning design as unsupportive and unnecessarily ambiguous. The results highlight issues around student perspectives of what 'learning' is, as well as structural issues existing within standardised student satisfaction surveys, each of which pose potential barriers to curriculum reform.
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