This complete, evidence-based practice paper presents an analysis of implementing student choice into assessment and assignment design in a first year experience course.
Traditionally, student assessment in large engineering courses depends upon a systems-level approach, such as exams or written assignments, whereby all students are assessed on the same criteria with limited consideration for individual student needs, approaches to learning, interests or goals. This approach lacks consideration for student motivation, which is an important element of student engagement in the first year experience, leading to the development of a sense of belonging and persistence in the engineering program. Self-determination theory (SDT) approaches motivation from the perspective of three psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. These psychological needs, when supported by the social environment, function as motivational assets to facilitate optimal functioning and psychological well-being (Ryan and Deci, 2000). In this framework, autonomy support has been highlighted as a distinct pathway to need satisfaction and to promote optimal functioning (Jang, Kim, and; Reeve, 2016).
In educational contexts, autonomy support involves a cluster of instructional practices that are well-suited for first year experience courses and includes: offering choices; framing the lesson with a set of meaningful goals; explaining pedagogical decisions and rationale behind learning activities; communicating with non-controlling and informational language; offering opportunities for self-direction; acknowledging and accepting expressions of negative affect; and allowing students to work at their own pace (Jang, Reeve, and; Halusic, 2016). In this paper, we will present the introduction of student choice in a first year experience course as a mechanism to increase motivation and support student autonomy in the exploration of major, planning for experiential learning and educational decision-making at [our large R1 institution].
Prior to this initiative, course evaluations for [our course] consistently indicated that many students desired more exposure to careers within the engineering field in order to better understand what it means to be an engineer, while others needed more support leveraging academic resources and integrating into the engineering community successfully. In an effort to improve student engagement and motivation across this range of needs, we introduced student choice into one critical assignment in the course, offering students different exploration pathways to complete the assignment.
Initially, all students met with an engineering faculty member to support exploration and development of their educational plan and the final assignment for the course. Through these student-faculty meetings, students expressed a desire for more exposure to engineering careers in the real world. While the meetings were beneficial, low student participation prior to these meetings becoming a required element of the course, suggests a lack of motivation for this type of engagement. By creating a choice-based assignment we provided a framework for students to engage with the engineering community in an area that specifically interested them, giving students a sense of autonomy in the process. In the new assignment, students are still required to engage with a member of the engineering community to support their learning, but now have the option of meeting with first-year advisors, student organization leaders, experiential learning program advisors, career advisors, engineering faculty or alumni. While engagement within most of these areas was well supported by the established university advising structure, we created a unique opportunity for mentorship between first-year students and alumni through a partnership with the alumni engagement office at our institution.
The paper includes a detailed description of the new assignment design, along with data indicating which types of exploration students elected. In our assessment, we provide a qualitative analysis of student motivation, conducted through submissions to the following questions on the assignment:
1) Why did you choose this activity? (Prior to participation)
2) What do you expect to learn during your investigation? (Prior to participation)
3) Did your participation meet your expectations?
4) Do you see yourself [continuing participation]?
5) How did you benefit from this experience?
6) What did you learn about [engineering at our institution] through this experience?
7) What are three next steps to continue your learning and exploration of [engineering at our institution]?
In addition to this qualitative analysis of student submissions, we provide data collected through in-class student feedback, including a facilitated focus group and a one-minute paper (Angelo and Cross, 1993) related to the transformed assignment.
In this paper we discuss three types of considerations for implementing students choice in a large course: a) instructional and assessment considerations; b) impact of student choice on motivation to participate; and c) benefits and challenges of connecting first-year students with various community members, including alumni. We also discuss future opportunities for student choice in the first year experience
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