Re-inventing undergraduate engineering curricula around relevance, accessibility and quality: ISSOTL 2018 Presentation

This presentation, delivered at ISSOTL Symposium in November 2018, describes an ongoing project to reinvent an undergraduate engineering curriculum in a post-92 University in the United Kingdom, based on the principles of relevance, accessibility and quality.  The impetus for the project arose from institutional data that showed not only poor overall progression statistics, but stark differences in attainment and progression (students progressing from the 1st to the 2nd year of undergraduate study) between students arriving with traditional academic qualifications (A levels) and those arriving with vocational qualifications.   The project involved twice-weekly hands on workshops with faculty from across the School of Engineering to address a series of problematic progression chains – sets of modules that build on each other in each year of study; propagate assumptions and attitudes about the quality and potential of the students at each level; and which currently exhibit the largest attainment gap between students arriving with Academic and Vocational qualifications.  Redesigning the curriculum across a chain of modules is by definition a team based, and cross-classroom approach and the shared understanding that is developed is proving a powerful mechanism for a bottom up pedagogically driven approach to curriculum redesign.

Download the full presentation here: ISSOTL-Nov2018-Saunders-Fowler-Final

Traditional approaches to teaching engineering in Higher Education Institutions are based on students achieving mastery of fundamental scientific, mathematical and behavioural concepts and then using this knowledge and experience to solve real life problems and engage in engineering projects. (Lucas et al., 2014)  However, maintaining a style and culture of engineering education aligned to traditional interpretations of quality benchmarks and assumptions about the attributes of students on entry, has made the curriculum both less accessible to the increasing numbers of students arriving at University with non-traditional vocational qualifications and less relevant to the needs of industry for highly qualified engineers who are able to work on real-world problems from day one.

In an attempt to address this issue, our project, which is underway in a post-92 School of Engineering in the UK, aims to reinvent the engineering curriculum away from a traditional one and towards a curriculum that is

  1. accessible to students from a wide range of educational and social backgrounds and closely linked and aligned across the years of the study
  2. relevant to the needs of industry
  3. high quality in terms of being based on sound pedagogical principles (of constructive alignment Biggs and Tang, 2011, and threshold concepts) and in terms of delivering high student satisfaction through consistency in presentation and clear links between curriculum elements

The focus of this presentation was on how one key requirement of this curriculum redesign was delivered.  Namely, the need to redesign material content, delivery and assessment simultaneously and collaboratively across a whole programme, across whole years of study and at the individual module level.  Without this joined up approach, there is the risk that problematic threshold concepts (Meyer and Land, 2003; Male, 2012)), and difficult to teach topics are merely moved within the curriculum, or repeated at each level, with little appreciation of what students have been taught in earlier modules or are being taught in parallel modules.

The mechanism we adopted to address this issue is based on the notion of progression chains – sets of modules that build on each other in each year of study; modules that are deeply interconnected in terms of content and key concepts that students must grasp in order to progress through their programme of study.

Ten different progression chains were identified across the School of Engineering’s three main undergraduate programmes of study.  All Faculty from the school have been working intensively in a twice weekly workshop format to restructure the entire engineering curriculum and develop a shared understanding of the principles of relevance, accessibility and quality.

Viewing our curriculum redesign through the lens of problematic progression chains has enabled teams of faculty who are ordinarily teaching in disparate and disconnected classrooms to engage with each other to define what the appropriate threshold concepts and key areas of study are for each module within the chain.  Importantly, using the format of the twice weekly workshops supported by open access to paper and electronic working documents has also enabled staff to agree collectively and collegiately what the learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities and assessments should be for each module in the progression chain. This has helped us avoid gaps in coverage, or repetition of material or assessment, and to build in meaningful, real problem solving and “fun” projects at each link in the progression chain.

Reference List:

Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2011)  Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 4th Ed. Open University Press, Maidenhead, England.

Lucas, B., Hanson, J. and Claxton, G. (2014) Thinking like an Engineer, Implications for the Education System, available at https://www.raeng.org.uk/publications/reports/thinking-like-an-engineer-implications-summary

Male, S. (2012) Engineering Thresholds: An Approach to Engineering Renewal, The University of Western Australia, available at http://www.ecm.uwa.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/2161107/Foundation-Engineering-Threshold-Concept-Inventory-120807.pdf

Meyer, J.H.F., & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practicing. In Improving student learning – theory and practice tenyears on (pp. 412–424). Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD).  Available from http://www.etl.tla.ed.ac.uk/docs/ETLreport4.pdf

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