Course: ENG1101 (Engineering Problem-Solving 1). In semester 1 there are about 350 students, about 150 of whom are on campus. In semester 2 there are about 150-200 students, all of them external.
Lyn divides her students into groups based on a skills audit questionnaire. Each group has a balance of skills in terms of communication, technical ability in maths and/or physics, leadership skills, report writing, etc. Each member of the group must make contact with the others and together they devise a code of conduct for the group, a peer-assessment and self-assessment strategy, a team meeting strategy and a problem-solving strategy. The groups submit a draft response to a problem in the form of a formal technical report. This aspect is worth 100 out of 250 marks. Students also submit a team evaluation discussing the team dynamics, identifying mentoring abilities, communication strategies, defining learning goals, and helping others meet their learning goals. This section is worth 150 marks out of 250.
In addition, students produce three individual portfolios. In the first, the students outline their learning goals, practice Harvard referencing, and document their own contribution to the team report. The second portfolio concerns contributions to the discussion board. Lyn posts a paper on the discussion board and combined groups of teams must post responses to these papers. This portfolio consists of a course reflection – i.e. a piece of reflective writing – as well as a demonstration of some technical abilities, e.g. equations or graphs. When the team reports are released, individual students critique a team's report, check the calculations, and provide constructive critique as part of their own portfolio. The third portfolio is self-assessed – for this, students carry out a piece of research into lifelong learning and a personal reflection on their learning in the course, eg their strengths and weaknesses, etc. They are given a scenario to do with team dynamics and they must discuss how they would reach a solution. In doing this they must revisit their personal learning goals, and in particular must consider whether or not they feel they have met the goals over the term of the course, how they have met them, or why they have not met them.
The course is in semester one of the first year, and there is a very diverse student cohort. The team tries to use this diversity to advantage by mentoring and getting students to set their own learning goals. Students may choose to extend some skills and knowledge whilst acquiring others.
The goals Lyn was aiming for in the design of this course were successful teamwork, improved communication skills (both written and oral), practice at solving open ended engineering problems, conflict resolution, team leadership, the recognition of prior experience (both one's own and others'), as well as the development of introductory technical skills such as word-processing, email, research, referencing and use of the internet.
What Lyn wants is for students to learn how to learn. She hopes they will ask themselves the following questions: what do I already know?; what do I need to know?; how do I find what I need to know (through a book, from a peer, by learning a new skill, etc)? Lyn says that this aspect of learning to learn is often missed by staff and students. Students expect courses to give them knowledge rather than learning skills, but students who lack learning skills will not acquire knowledge effectively.
Outcomes for students include increased confidence in their ability to learn and apply technical knowledge; social aspects – ie, mixing of students from across the faculty and the ability of external students to meet and work with other students; recognition of prior knowledge and experience; and peer- and self-assisted learning.
Analysis of portfolios revealed approximately 92% of students viewed the course favourably despite difficulties in electronic communication and low motivation and participation of some team members. An example of a typical student comment from a portfolio is that after taking the course, "I am confident in my ability to learn what I don't already understand."
Lyn stresses that it is a team effort and that whilst many aspects of the course have been her ideas initially, several people have worked hard and contributed towards and refined these ideas. It has been an incremental process of building and Lyn has taken informal input from a large number of people.
Lyn carried out a survey of students' responses to the course (see paper linked below for more detail). She also takes on board comments made on the message boards, statements in students' reflective portfolios and also feedback from facilitators. Early glitches with the course are being corrected and this in turn is increasing student satisfaction. In addition, staff training programs are being developed so that more effective facilitation is offered.
Problems and advice for others
Lyn says the most significant barriers are staff and student attitude, appropriate and adequate resources (both physical and financial), effective facilitation, particularly for external teams, and monitoring individual student learning and participation.
Students had significant difficulties with the reflective writing tasks and, similarly, staff initially had difficulty in guiding and assessing these tasks. A reflective writing guide for students and a parallel guide for staff were developed, along with assessment rubrics. With the improvement of reflective writing from the students, staff began to realise the benefit of these tasks. In future offerings, staff will be required to undertake their own reflective writing tasks.
Communication technology is also a significant problem for some distance students, particularly those in remote areas where Internet connections are unreliable and slow.
Staff training and attitudes are critical to the success of the course. There is often a direct relationship between teams that have teamwork difficulties and very critical reflective portfolios and facilitators who are not supportive of the methodology.
Distance students often choose external study for its flexibility. The dependence on others associated with teamwork removes some flexibility of the students to study when it is convenient for them. However, it does help students set up and maintain a study schedule that carries over to other independent courses of study, enabling them to become self-directed learners.