This is a complete research paper. The research interest in engineering epistemology is growing as more engineering education researchers consider that students’ beliefs about the nature of engineering is essential to how they learn, which influences their professional preparation . Epistemology refers to how individuals view the nature of knowledge and knowing in a particular domain, in this case, engineering .
While several models have framed epistemological beliefs in somehow different ways , they all propose that multiple dimensions should be considered when understanding epistemological beliefs. These dimensions include a) certainty of knowledge, b) simplicity of knowledge, c) source of knowledge, d) justification for knowing, and e) attainability of truth . Students’ epistemological views have been found to influence the learning goals they set, their learning strategies, and their improvement in problem-solving processes [4-6].
The objective of this study is to examine the engineering epistemological views of students in an introductory engineering course, using a unique methodological approach, Q methodology, and whether such views are related to student learning outcomes among first year engineering students. This study allows educators to better understand students’ views toward knowledge and knowing of engineering. A nuanced examination of students’ epistemological views during the first-year may play a key role in understanding students’ persistence in engineering.
Q is a means to systematically measure subjectivity and more aligned with qualitative paradigm . It enables researchers to explore different perspectives, preferences, or behaviors among people on a given topic. In a Q study, participants typically are instructed to perform Q-sorting process on a set of items/statements drawn on their own perspectives on the topic under investigation. The complete sort essentially reflects a participant’s subjectivity of the topic, which is intrinsically qualitative [8, 9].
With the approval of University IRB, a total of 19 students from an introductory engineering course participated in the study in the fall semester in College of Engineering at a large Midwestern land grant university. It is worth mentioning that Q methodology correlates participants to explore the patterns among them. Therefore, Q studies typically utilize small sample sizes and it is psychometrically acceptable [7, 8]. The Q-sorting statements were adapted from Wheeler's Epistemological Beliefs Survey. A total of 36 statements were included in the sample for Q-sorting. Once the Q-sorting data was complete, it was analyzed through a series of sophisticated statistical procedures including correlation, factor analysis and calculation of factor scores [7, 8]. PQMethod program was used for the analyses .
Four different epistemological views emerged from the data. Students who shared the first view expressed that they learn engineering best when watching the teacher work a problem. They expressed frustration when they did not know how to solve an engineering problem immediately. The second view was characterized by a coherent view of engineering as seeing the ideas and concepts in engineering to be interconnected. They acknowledged that practicing many engineering problems was necessary regardless of how smart a student was. They had to be taught the right way in order to solve engineering problems; and when they were showed multiple ways to answer or solve an engineering problem, they found it confusing.
Unlike the second view, students who shared the third view preferred learning multiple ways to answer or solve an engineering problem. They valued the ambiguity of knowledge in that answers are not simply either right or wrong in engineering. The third view emphasized the importance of knowing why something works in engineering rather than memorizing a formula. Furthermore, these students saw the connections between what they learned in engineering class and real world applications. The fourth view, similar to the third view, emphasized the importance of knowing why something works rather than memorizing a formula. However, students holding this view considered answers to always be either right or wrong in engineering; and even though they don't understand them, they had to accept answers from the instructor sometimes. Similar to the first view, these students also expressed frustration when they did not know how to solve an engineering problem immediately.
The relationship between epistemological beliefs and student learning outcomes was further examined through students’ GPAs (4-point scale) by the end of the first year and whether they stayed in engineering by the end of the first year. Two students who shared the fourth view and one student who held the first view have left engineering by the end of the first year while all others were retained. Students who held the second view had the highest average GPAs (m = 3.68), followed by the third view (m = 3.41). Students who held the first view seemed to struggle academically with lower GPAs (m = 2.7).
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