Student Engagement Practice: An Engineering Experience — Samar Mohamed

What is Student engagement? Why is it important? And how is it achieved? These are questions that instructors think about all the time. Most instructors would like their students to be engaged with their course material because it will ultimately lead to students’ deeper learning of the course concepts.

A simple definition of student engagement states: “students make a psychological investment in learning” [1].

In a previous blog posting, Donna Ellis, our CTE director, described a model that is based on making connections between the instructor, the content, and the learner in which the learner and his learning experience are at the center of the learning process and how making these connections helps engage students in their learning. In another previous blog posting my colleague Katherine Lithgow talked about the pedagogical benefits of considering learning as a social activity and discussed how this can help students to engage with their course material.

Jonathan Histon and Jim Wallace organically implemented these ideas using LEARN’s tools to foster student engagement in their course “SYDE 348 – User Centered Design Methods”.  SYDE 348 is an atypical engineering elective course that focuses on engineering psychology, human factors, and design. It looks at how designers can create effective interactive computer systems that are usable and that experience minimal errors when people interact with them. The course is designed to be a hands-on, example-oriented, and project-based. There is much theory in this course that needs to be related to real-life problems; hence, student engagement is crucial for them to deeply learn the course material and connect the classroom theory to the “muddy” real world, in addition to getting them to see and think about how user-centred design applies in their daily lives.

To engage students, the teaching team used different techniques, one of which was a major team project in which students were asked to design a mobile application for someone in the community. The students talked to end users and recorded the needs of the business owner and his customers or clients.  In addition, the teaching team tied in some reading material “Engaging through supplemental readings” in which students ran across different examples and experiences from newspapers, blog postings, media, and policy discussions. Students were asked to report on how this relates to what they learned in the course. Typically the students browsed the web, logged in to LEARN, and posted their findings in a discussion forum. They also discussed whether the new application was a good or a bad design in order to spark some conversations. Jonathan and Jim explored how to integrate the available social networking programs in their LEARN site in order to make the students learning experience better and more engaging. One thing that was apparent was that many websites included a Twitter feed which looked appealing for them. Accordingly, they included a Twitter feed in their course homepage. The students logged in to their own Twitter accounts and tweeted the publication information either on their Twitter account or through the course Twitter feed that appears on the course webpage in LEARN.

Using a Twitter feed in the course allowed the instructors to share readings with students in which the tweets can be accessed either through the students’ Twitter accounts or in the course webpage. It was easy to use and to insert into LEARN. Students were re-tweeting messages and responding to the tweets. The limitation was that Twitter is limited to 140 characters, so it only handles the posted URL with no room to explain why it was included, so Jonathan and Jim needed to follow up in class about that.

A typical sequence for each week in the course was:

  • At the end of a week, assigned readings for the following week were made available through LEARN.
  • Over weekend, an online quiz of 5 to 7 questions was made available to the students through LEARN.  The quiz  was intended to serve as a motivation for students to complete the assigned readings and stay on top of course.
  • Lecture slides were posted on LEARN prior to each class.
  • Students’ reflections on course concepts’ applications in real life were collected in different discussion boards that were used strategically in different weeks to get students input and ideas. The discussions were typically ‘find an example of’ e.g. ‘bad design, good design, etc…’ type of questions, from the news, from coop, from their own searches etc…
  • In addition to the reflection discussion boards, a FAQ discussion board was created in order to provide central place for TAs, prof, other students to answer questions / provide feedback.
  • Moreover, another discussion board was used by students to post introductions. This provided the instructors with efficient way to collect information on background of course participants.
  • A survey was used to collect detailed information on student backgrounds for student group assignments, in order to group students with the adequate team members.
  • Students were assigned groups using LEARN’s Group tool that provided students with team discussion boards and team dropboxes.

Finally, I would like highlight that this course helped the students to interact actively with each other, with their instructors and with the course content. This engaged the students with the course and guided them to learn more deeply through integrating the course content with their real lives.

Here’s a snapshot of how the Twitter feed appeared in LEARN:

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Samar Mohamed

Samar Mohamed is the CTE Liaison for Faculty of Engineering. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence Samar worked as a Post Doctoral Fellow in Electrical and Computer Engineering Dept. She received both her MSc and PhD from the University of Waterloo

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