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The implications of the curriculum process on the design of a modern engineering programme in the Dublin Institute of Technology

Author - Kevin Kelly

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Learning and teaching

Modern educational research focuses on the learner: learning and teaching has replaced teaching and learning, in modern third-level education. Most lecturers begin teaching in the same way they were taught. Garratt (1994) believes engineers have a high need for certainty and an impulsion towards action rather than thought – action-fixated behaviour rather than learning. In the engineering faculty at DIT, lecturing posts are filled on the basis of industrial experience and research in the field of engineering. New lecturers have little or no experience teaching. Until recently, these lecturers were encouraged to pursue research in engineering as opposed to research into the career they had now chosen, teaching.

Surface and deep learning

Working in Sweden, Marton and Saljo (1976) first categorised student approaches to learning as deep and surface. Research in the UK and Australia uncovered remarkably similar findings. On one hand, surface learners are strategic and tend to memorise information. They focus on the requirements of tests and examinations. They cram before exam and seldom interrelate material to other topics and their experience. They concentrate on getting satisfactory or high marks in assessments. Any learning, which occurs, is a by-product. Deep learning, on the other hand, is where students seek understanding and meaning to what they are studying. They relate new material to previous knowledge and interact with the material by using it in other areas of their study, such as assignment and project work. Examinations and assessment are not the primary motivation for these students: learning is the priority.

According to Boud et al. (1996), association and integration are higher-order learning skills. Association is the connection of new learning with existing knowledge and attitudes. Integration seeks to find the nature of relationships; it draws conclusion and seeks insights. These are the essential features of deep learning.

Surface learning has evolved over the years on engineering programmes in DIT. Teachers and programme designers kept expanding syllabi to include new information, which it was essential for engineers to know. Little or nothing was taken out of syllabi with the result that students were exposed to ever-expanding syllabi without being given time to think reflectively or critically. The premise was that the student is an empty vessel waiting to be filled with knowledge by the expert teacher.

Student-centred learning

Sheingold (1991) argues that effective learning hinges on active engagement by the student. The construction of knowledge around their own knowledge leads to a much deeper understanding. The result of this is the use of higher order cognitive skills, as defined by Bloom and collaborates in the 1950s. According to Dick (1992), the classroom of the future will support the constructivist belief that learning must be BIG (Beyond the information given) if not WIG (without the information given). BIG/WIG puts emphasis on the learner, but the assessment method must be appropriate.

The constructivist teacher facilitates the students and provides the tools for the students
to work out a solution. This gives them an opportunity to develop their critical thinking. The student learns how to learn. This is an important asset, in an age where the shelf life of what is learned on an engineering programme is becoming progressively shorter.

It is no longer necessary to expand syllabi with new information the student must know. We can relax in the confidence that graduates will have the meta-skills necessary to find out later anything they need to know. Students also improve their communication skills and ability to work in a team. Confidence and self-esteem are thereby nurtured in the student in a way which is not possible with traditional methods of teaching. Constructivist learning programmes should also encourage peer support and a collaborative learning environment. Curricula that encourage student cooperation and discourage student competition are likely to create a much better learning environment.


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