How can writing develop students' deep approaches to learning in the engineering curriculum?

Swinburne University of Technology
Publication Type:
Conference Proceeding
Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Conference for the Australasian Association for Engineering Education - The Profession of Engineering Education: Advancing Teaching, Research and Careers, 2012, pp. 1 - 8
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BACKGROUND Recent national and international research has identified a number of gaps in the development of engineering graduate capabilities: one is the real-world problem-solving ability, which is linked to a lack of integration of theoretical and practical knowledge (ASEE 2009; King,2008; Royal Academy of Engineering, 2006; Sheppard, Macatanga, Colby & Sullivan 2009; Male, Bush & Chapman 2009; Walther & Radcliffe 2007). Another is written (and spoken) communication (King, 2008; Male, Bush & Chapman 2011). There is strong evidence to indicate that these gaps occur in part as a result of a predominance of engineering curricula in universities which emphasise knowledge acquisition, and the prevailing assessment tasks that focus learning on atomised pieces of knowledge. Such an approach encourages surface learning approaches, resulting in graduates who may lack the integrated knowledge required for engineering practice and who have limited communication capabilities. PURPOSE There is, however, a body of research that suggests deep approaches to learning in the disciplines can be achieved through particular kinds of writing that provide the opportunity to explore concepts which link theory and practice, thus developing both writing ability and integrated understanding. This paper presents the preliminary phase of a study to investigate the strategic use of discursive writing to foster both a deeper approach to learning and enhanced written communication skills in the engineering curriculum. The study focuses on discursive writing as a means of providing students with the opportunity to explore the theories and concepts that they are learning, in order to integrate knowledge from different parts of the curriculum and to link the theories to engineering practice. DESIGN/METHOD In order to investigate how writing is currently practised and assessed in Australian engineering curricula, a preliminary analysis of written assessment tasks in a unit of study in the mechanical engineering program from two Australian universities was undertaken. The analysis focused on the types of writing that students are required to produce and the extent to which writing is practised and evaluated. RESULTS The results have been analysed with a view to responding to the following questions: what is the range of writing tasks that students produce? The limited range of writing tasks suggests that there is a need to develop broader number of genres within the curriculum. Is there evidence of explicit teaching or learning activities centred on writing? The analysis revealed that there was little to no evidence of explicit teaching and learning of writing, suggesting that writing is being assessed but not taught in the engineering curricula being examined. CONCLUSIONS The understanding gained from the analysis will form the basis for the later phases of the study, which will seek to discover how students and staff view writing and integrated knowledge. From this, a number of writing tasks will be developed and subsequently piloted to determine their effectiveness in developing studentsâ writing capabilities and facilitating integrated understanding of the engineering curriculum.
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