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The application of learning skills in an engineering programme

Author - Leslie Shoemaker

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Module structure

The structure of the Academic Development and Key Skills module is based on the recognition that students require their social, personal and psychological needs to be addressed in addition to their academic needs. It is the overlooking, or lack of recognition, of these ‘non-academic’ needs that can have a significant impact on the third level student’s ability to complete a programme of study, as well as to make a successful transition to the workforce (Gibbs et al. 1994).

The structure of the module is also based on recommendations from employers and on research completed during 2001/02 by Frank Costello, Retention Officer at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) (Curry, Sherry and Tunney 2006; Costello and Russell 2002). The study focuses on the experiences of first year students at DIT and evaluates the responses of 1,356 students across 43 programmes in the six faculties at the institute. Costello identifies four types of students: (1) the ‘at risk student’; (2) the ‘struggler’; (3) the ‘average student’; and (4) the ‘confident student’. The needs identified for the first two types of students relate to many personal identity issues, such as confidence, career choice and course choice. Academic issues pertaining to study skills relate to the first three categories (Costello and Russell 2002).

In light of the results of this survey, humanistic psychological research was incorporated into the formation of the Academic Development and Key Skills module. The intention was to utilise this information to address further the variety of issues, both academic and non-academic, that are presented by a typical third level student population.

The Academic Development and Key Skills module comprises the following elements: one-hour lectures; supplemental laboratory classes; research projects; and workshops/seminars. The students are actively involved in class discussions, peer learning, presentations, group work and individual assignments, as well as problem based learning. In this way the module facilitates the students’ development of how to learn in an academic setting with the objective of transferring these skills to the world of employment.

The concept of peer learning has been integrated into study skills assignments based on its successful integration into programmes in both Ireland and abroad (Ehly and Topping 1998; Adelgais, King and Staffieri 1998). Derived from the psychological concept of modelling, otherwise known as observational/social learning theory, the basis of this theory is that learning can occur through the process of observing the activities of others. The academic environment, the behaviour of the learners and the students’ own cognitions/beliefs thus form important aspects of the learning process (Huitt and Hummel 2006), and efforts have been made to create a supportive and positive learning environment that fosters the academic and personal development of students. This in turn helps to create an atmosphere that promotes deep learning. It is important to recognise that is reflective also of the ethos of the degree programme in DIT (Department of Electrical Services Engineering 2004).

A typical example of an assignment for the first year group requires the students, in small groups, to participate in a college based scavenger hunt. This activity requires them to locate specific items and areas that are relevant to their college experience, for example finding the location of the mathematical learning centre, the medical centre, the library and, of course, the departmental secretary. Next, the students are required to write a group essay on teams and their development. As part of the exercise, the students must include their personal reflections of their team experiences during the scavenger hunt. Both aspects of this task are meant to assist the students with skills such as problem solving, goal setting, conflict management, group work, self-reflection, research skills, computer skills and written communication.

In the second year of the Academic and Key Skills module, the students teach workshops on specific skills such as presentation skills, memory techniques, and examination revision to first year students. The workshops include active learning exercises that require self-assessment as well as a practical application of the specific skill set being taught. What emerges is a mentoring relationship between the first year and second year students. This relationship is enriched by the insights that the second year students have gained from their experiences during their first year of the programme.

Each year of the module is examined by means of continuous assessment and progression from one year to the next requires a pass mark. The benefit of this method of assessment is that the students further develop their independent learning skills thus preparing them for lifelong learning (Department of Electrical Services Engineering 2004). In addition, students are encouraged to reflect on their own personal developmental and academic progress. Formative feedback regarding their academic performance helps to encourage self-reflection.

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