A sketch – applying principles from ‘Experience-led learning’ in the engineering classroom

In two weeks’ time we will be launching a report commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering called ‘Experience-led learning for engineers’. More details on that to follow shortly. As is often the case publishing papers, there is often a long time lag between first writing and publication, and so I am writing this thought piece as a way to put that thinking back to the front of my mind. I hope it will also seed conversations with collaborators.

This a sketch – hastily written down in a few moments I have to spare and is intended to provoke conversation. It describes how some of the principles from the Experience-led learning report could be integrated into an experimental module on an undergraduate civil engineering degree course. The overall aim is to help prepare students that are better suited for working in industry by starting from what the students know, by teaching for depth of knowledge, and by teaching metacognitive skills. This sketch picks up on the following Principles from the report:

  • P2 – Find out what motivates the students and use it
  • P3 – Explain why it matters
  • P5 – Find out what they know and build on it
  • P7 – Use project-based learning
  • P8 – Develop well-organised bodies of knowledge
  • P9 – Use formative assessment

To begin, let’s take a typical course, such as a first-year introduction to structural engineering. We might imagine this course lasting one term. A course like this would normally have a curriculum and set of learning outcomes defined by the lecturer. At the start of the course, the lecturer might provide the students with an overview of the course, an explanation of how the material will be covered, and how it would be assessed. In this sketch however, things would work a little differently.

Begin with motivations

The starting point would be student motivations. The facilitator runs a session in which the students describe their motivations for study (rather than call the person at the front of the class the lecturer, I will call them the facilitator, which emphasises the nature of the relationship I am proposing). What do they want to get out of their degree in general, and why? What do they want to get out of this module? What do they want to do when they graduate? What do they like to do outside the classroom? This information provides the facilitator with lots of ways to help frame the content of the course to make it relevant to the learner and promote intrinsically-led learning. It also helps students to understand each others’ motivations so that they can better support each other and collaborate.

Students identify important content

The next thing to do with the students to is help them understand why the course content is important. You could do this by facilitating a session in which you ask students to identify what they think a civil engineer needs to know about structural analysis. The starting point could be a talk from a structural engineer about a project that they are working on and the processes they go through. Students could work in groups to identify bits of theory that they need to know. As they develop their thinking they could start to look for interdependencies and threshold concepts and start to prioritise concepts. The facilitator could introduce Bloom’s Taxonomy to help students rank concepts into some sort of hierarchy. Groups would then come together and try to agree a long-list curriculum for the class. Places where groups disagree provide opportunities for class discussion. Conflicts can be noted and resolved later as student understanding develops.

Experience has already taught students a great deal

Having formed a picture of what the students think they need to know, and how these bodies of knowledge relate to each other, it is time to invoke what students already know about the topics they’ve identified. It would be useful to do this on both an individual and a group basis. The following is an extract from the Experience-led learning report about how to use a blog to do this:

Blog about what you know – students could be asked at the start of each module to write an entry on a class blog or personal blog about what they know about a new topic, and what they would like to find out. During the module, they can be asked to look back at this post and see if they are indeed learning what they wanted to. Educators can read the blog posts of their students and modify course content accordingly.

Students could initially pair up to help each other assess what they know about each topic. For instance, they could try to list out ten things they know about each of the principal structural materials, and ten things they don’t know. This would be an exercise that students would need to feel their way through. It is important that they aren’t looking up the answers, but are basing their assessment on what they already know and understand. It would be useful to provide students with a series of quiz questions around topics that they have chosen to be important to help them assess their level of understanding, for instance using a tool like Engineering Mastermind. To conclude this exercise, students could fill in an online survey where they decide on a red-amber-green scale on their level of understanding of different parts of a topic. This would create heat map of the perceived level of understanding across the class.

So far we have focused on student motivations, defined important learning outcomes, explained how areas of knowledge interrelate, shown students that they already know a reasonable amount about the topic in hand, and identified the areas where students feel they need to develop their learning. Now we move into the knowledge development phase. I see two components to this: learning through experimentation and problem solving; and formalising the knowledge.

Learning through experimentation and problem solving

Here I would advocate a project-based learning approach, in which students identify and define their own problem to solve within the domain of the course. As they work through their projects, they can identify areas where they would feel like they would benefit from formalised learning. This would need to be negotiated between the needs of different parts of the class. Some of the formalised learning could be a set of tutorial questions, a lecture, suggested reading or simply a one-on-one conversation. In the project-based approach, students define the outputs of their project, delivered within the timeframe of the module. We describe in more detail how a project-based approach could be used in a structural engineering context on pages 22 and 23 of the Experience-led learning report.

Formalising knowledge

My here suggestion would be for the class to create a shared wiki here as a way to agree and explain core concepts. The following is lifted from page 19 of the Experience-led learning report on using a wiki to organise student knowledge.

Create a class wiki for each new teaching module — a wiki is highly flexible way for groups of people to organise information online. Wikipedia is the most famous example. At the start of a new teaching module, challenge the class to write down what they already know about the topic in a dedicated wiki. In practice, the class would need to agree broad headings for the pages of the wiki, and then in a first round of activity, groups would need to start working on filling in the pages on individual headings. In a second round of activity, students could then go round and see if there are any gaps in the other pages that they can fill in themselves. The educator can monitor activity on the wiki, and use information clashes to prompt discussion. As the course progresses, students can add additional information to any of the pages as they come across it during their studies. As well as helping to establish existing knowledge, this process helps to support community-centred learning and creates a learning resource that they can refer back to later in their studies.


The final thing to address is assessment. This sort of approach lends itself well to formative assessment, be that through direct feedback, peer-to-peer feedback or self-assessment using quizzes. If students created a blog at the start of the module about what they thought they needed to learn, then they can assess what progress they have made against these aims. Summative assessment is harder to achieve here because every student stands to learn something different. There is the opportunity to assess the technical quality of the outputs from the project work. Quizzes used for formative assessment could also be used for summative purposes.

Having said that, there is a playoff here. I think the approach that I have proposed above would lead to deeper understanding and greater retention, but in a way that makes summative assessment difficult. Is that acceptable? Perhaps there is a fundamental question we have to ask ourselves: do we want to make sure everyone reaches the same benchmark regardless of where they started (which I would argue summative assessment achieves) or do we want to stretch everyone as far as possible from the point at which they started (which I would argue formative assessment supports). I lean towards the latter.


What would all of this achieve? I think the following:

  • We would be drawing on students’ intrinsic motivation and curiosity and using this to propel them deeper into the material than they might otherwise have done.
  • We would be making the most of the knoweldge that students have already developed from being engaged in the real world and already curious about engineering. Mapping new knowledge to this existing understanding is likely to aid retention.
  • We would be helping them to understand how different bodies of knowledge fit together and can be used.
  • And we would be developing the critical skills of assessing what you need to know, assessing what you know already, and figuring out how to make up the difference.
  • These are crucial skills in the ever more dynamic and turbulent world that today’s students will find themselves working in.