This research seeks to help educators understand factors that contribute to engineering students’ motivation and the relationship between those factors and their problem solving processes. Understanding these relationships will aid researchers and practitioners in preparing students for a future of complex problem solving in the face of rapid technological change and globalization. This project addresses these research questions: What motivational attributes that characterize engineering students are relevant to their problem-solving skills and knowledge transfer? How do these relationships differ between engineering disciplines?
We conducted a quantitative study in which we developed the Motivation and Attitudes in Engineering (MAE) survey using achievement motivation as our theoretical framework. This study showed that a key factor in student success and learning is their motivation towards their future goals, especially with respect to career options. The relationships between that motivation and their activities in the present can be used by educators to increase interest in engineering, increase the relevance students see in their course activities, and prepare students to become effective engineers.
Through this quantitative study, and in subsequent qualitative studies, we have identified three characteristic ways that students perceive their future goals and how those goals influence what they are doing in the present. One way students perceive the future is through one distinct long-term goal, reaching far into the future, with a high level of clarity. These students can identify contingent steps needed to reach their goal, which influences what is relevant and useful in the present. The second way students perceive the future is with two distinct long-term goals which are conflicting; one of these long term goals is realistic (with both desired and undesired aspects), while the other is an unattainable ideal. These students see a range of activities as being relevant and useful in the present. The third group of students has a broad, non-specific range of possible goals for the future and no specific plans beyond graduation. These students have weak or no connections between students’ future selves and the work they are doing in their engineering courses.
Students within these different characteristic ways of perceiving the future respond differently to classroom activities. For example, when asked about what they think an engineering problem is, students with distinct future goals and who make connections between future and present tend to think of engineering problems as being well-structured and having clear right/wrong answers. Students with ill-defined futures and no connections between future and present see engineering problems as “anything” and tend to approach them conceptually.
We are sharing these results with engineering educators to inform them of the different ways their students are perceiving the future. This will allow educators to better understand the students in their classes and to design activities and assignments that students will find relevant and meaningful. The study will continue to explore the different ways that the MAE survey can be used to benefit practitioners and instructors. Currently, the MAE is being used to explore connections between motivations of students and their behaviors in the classroom, including regulating their learning and solving complex problems.
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