Patterns within problem-based learning: how a prior mathematics failure affects engineering diploma students

2017-01-31T04:42:38Z (GMT) by Rajalingam, Preman
Historically, the progress of engineering has been so closely associated with the progress of mathematics that some have found it hard to separate the two disciplines. Within engineering education, it is often taken for granted that a good engineering student is also good at mathematics. Thus, prior performance in mathematics is usually an important consideration for admission into most engineering programmes. This doctoral study was conducted in a unique context at a polytechnic in Singapore, where a small number of students who failed mathematics were admitted into engineering programmes, and Problem-Based Learning (PBL) was the dedicated pedagogical approach. The aims of this study were to identify important issues in engineering education that were associated with prior mathematic performance, and to understand the experiences of those engineering students who had failed mathematics. The study adopted a mixed method research design; quantitative data were collected from 1217 students using an institution-wide survey, and nine students who failed mathematics were interviewed to collect qualitative data. The quantitative findings showed that the effect of prior mathematics performance on performance in engineering courses was small, compared to its effect on psychological characteristics such as academic confidence and intrinsic motivation. In addition, a prior failure in mathematics generally led students to form certain qualitatively different “Conceptions of Mathematics”, which adversely affected their “Conceptions of Engineering”. These conceptions were linked to their academic confidence and intrinsic motivation, which in turn influenced their intention to persist in engineering. Based on these findings and relevant educational theories, a model was proposed to explain why the students’ prior experiences in mathematics influenced their learning in engineering as well as their motivation for an engineering career. This study lends support to the notion that the psychological outcomes of engineering education should be considered as important as its cognitive outcomes, in making pedagogical and policy decisions.