söndag 27 november 2016

Do engineering students approach their studies strategically? (dissertation)


One week ago my colleague, Maria Svedin, defended her ph.d. thesis, "Do excellent engineers approach their studies strategically?: A quantitative study of students' approaches to learning in computer science education" (available here).

Maria was my next door neighbor until earlier this year when I moved from the sixth to the fifth floor. We are both at the same department (Media Technology and Interaction Design - MID) but we do not belong to the same "team"( I belong to MID4Sustainability - MID4S) and the reason I write about her thesis is because I was the chairman for the dissertation ceremony - for the first time in my life.

Parts of the procedure of presenting/defending a ph.d. thesis is scripted and other parts are very free. It is specified that the faculty opponent should query and discuss the thesis with the respondent (the ph.d. student), but the actual contents of that discussion is naturally left open. Still, I was the guardian and the master of the scripted parts - making sure everybody understood their parts in the ceremony and that things moved along the way the were supposed to.

The most curious part of my instructions was a sentence where it stated that my responsibility was to make sure the dissertation was carried through "in the way it was supposed to" ["genomförs så som avsetts"]. The instructions also left a lot of power to me so it could in fact be possible to claim that whatever way I saw fit to carry through the dissertation was - due to the powers that had been vested in me - the way it was supposed to be carried through.

In practice I did very little that differed from other dissertations I have attended. One thing did however differ. One of the studies/articles included in the thesis discussed the results of making the contents of one course "gender-neutral". Due to media attention, that study generated almost-predictable "excited" online discussions where people who were clueless (e.g. had not read the study) still had a lot of opinions about issues pertaining to gender. There was a slight worry that someone would turn up at the dissertation and make a mess so I, as chairman, early on emphasize what the ceremony looked like, what roles different persons had (my role as chairman and the roles of the respondent, the opponent and of the faculty committee) and at what point the general audience was allowed ask questions (i.e. late in the ceremony). Nothing of that sort happened though but it's better to be prepared than to be taken by surprise.

Maria has had no less than four advisors and her main advisor has been my colleague Olle Bälter. The other three advisors are Stefan Hrastinski, Martha Cleveland-Innes and Johan Thorbiörnson. The opponent was Arnold Pears (Department of Information Technology, Uppsala University) and the grading committee consisted of Tomas Jungert, (Department of Psychology, Lund University), Päivi Kinnunen (Educational specialist, Aalto University) and Aletta Nylén (Department of Information Technology, Uppsala University). Here's the abstract to Maria's thesis:

This thesis is about students’ approaches to learning (SAL) in computer science education. Since the initial development of SAL instruments and inventories in the 70’s, they have been used as a means to understand students’ approaches to learning better, as well as to measure and predict academic achievement (such as retention, grades and credits taken) and other correlating factors. It is an instrument to measure a student’s study strategies – not how “good” a student is.

A Swedish short version of Approaches and Study Skills Inventory for Students (ASSIST) was used to gather information on whether we, through context and content, encouraged sustainable study behaviour among our students. ASSIST was used in two distinct situations: 1) Evaluation and evolvement of an online programming course design, and 2) Engineering education in media technology and computer science in a campus environment where approaches to learning has been evaluated and studied over time during the five year long programmes. Repeated measurements have been analysed against factors predicting academic achievement, and have been evaluated on a cohort level (not individual) in order to clarify patterns rather than individual characteristics.

Significant for both projects was that a surface approach to learning correlated negatively with retention. Students who adopted a combination of deep and strategic approach to learning performed better in terms of grades, ECTS credits completed and perceived value of the education. As part of developmental tools it can be beneficial to use ASSIST at a group level in order to see what kind of approach a course design or a programme supports among the students.

Keywords: Approaches to learning, computer science engineering education, Computing education research, online learning

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