Do we teach well? How can we find out? As experienced teachers in engineering we “just know” when we do particularly well; we have learnt to read our students in our own subjects. However, if we broaden the perspective and take a step away from the individual class room, a slightly different picture emerges. We could, for example, ask ourselves questions such as “What did the students learn?” or “What did the students try to learn?”. Our own feelings are then, on their own, not enough to answers these questions. A complementary perspective based on research is required. In this talk, I will discuss different ways in which such research can be done, as well as the close relationship between the research question, the research methodology and the outcome.
Research within engineering education aims to formalize and extend the competence of the teacher. Apart from its basis in the teacher and her practice, engineering education research gains from being founded both within the subject area and a relevant theoretical base in pedagogy. The research that I will advocate in this talk mirrors these ideas by exploring both that which is learned about (the object of the students’ learning), and the ways in which this learning is approached.
The insights gained by engineering education research contribute mainly through their results, when they are used by a teacher. For example, a teacher, who has insights in how students understand the computer science concepts of object and class, is in a good position to teach them in a successful way. However, a theoretically anchored base in pedagogy also contributes in other ways. It serves as a frame of reference, helping a researcher to judge the generalisability and trustworthiness of his or her work. A common language becomes available. Through this language, a researcher can discuss his or her results and their applications with colleagues. The individual researcher also gets a clearer identity, recognisable outside the local area. This has a value as it offers support to him or her and a visibility for the community. It is easier for a visible community to promote its ideas and influence the teaching.
The result of a research project is, of course, closely related to how a project is performed. There are several “starting points” (often referred to as research approaches, research frameworks or research methodologies). Each of these has a different empirical, epistemological and ontological basis. Selecting how to perform a certain research project and verbalising its underlying values, comes to delimit what can be studied. For example, statistical studies can be useful for finding trends in large populations, such as exploring the correlation between the students’ results in engineering and their parents’ income and profession. On the other hand a feminist researcher addresses questions of power imbalances and the underlying values of different engineering concepts. An interesting question here I, for example, if there are any factors within the discipline of engineering itself, such as it is taught at our universities, that might prevent female students from accepting the values of the engineering community.
Thus, it is crucial to consciously select a research approach that can be fruitful for answering the research question at hand. Different approaches offer varying perspectives and lead the researcher on different roads. The relationship between a research approach and the outcome is complex: Similar results, or at least results illuminating the same research question, can be obtained in different ways. Neither does the selection of a particular way of performing the research necessarily lead to a certain type of result. Other factors influence the outcome, such as for example the research setting. Even the researcher, with his or her values and experiences, becomes a factor of the outcome. As a consequence, it is a complex task to determine to what degree pedagogically based research in engineering education can be trusted. However, this shall not prevent us from trying. Instead the complexity emphasises the need of an underlying pedagogical theory.
In this talk I will develop these ideas about engineering education research and illustrate its current state and application by a set of examples. Some relevant research approaches, and the results they have helped to reveal, will be explored. I will finally discuss how such results can contribute to the work in a class room situation.
Helsinki University of Technology, TKK, Helsinki, Finland , 2007. , 30 - 31 p.