Exploring Engineering Students' Interpretations of Success

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Ullrich, Max
Success , Student Success , Engineering Education , Research Study
This study used quantitative methods to explore Canadian undergraduate engineering students’ interpretations of their success. The amorphous term “student success” is used by students, educators, academics, engineering professionals, and institutions to represent a wide variety of outcomes. Educators, academics, and institutions commonly define student success in terms of academic achievement and retention rate. This definition of student success was not developed with input from students, nor does it necessarily represent the diversity of the Canadian undergraduate engineering population. The purpose of this study was to explore how students define their success, investigate differences between groups of students, and identify changes students could make to best reach their future goals. A 60-question survey instrument was designed and tested in a mixed-method pilot study with a sample of graduate engineering students. Based on analysis and feedback from the pilot study, the research methodology and questions were improved and validated, and then the revised study was offered to the undergraduate engineering students at Queen’s University with n = 266 responses, a response rate of 8%. The results from the research suggest that students define their success in nuanced ways. Academic achievement and retention are commonly used by students to measure their success, but the importance of these criteria is low relative to vocational outcomes and personal happiness. The results of this study suggest an updated definition of “student success” for use in the academic environment: academic achievement; attainment of learning objectives; acquisition of desired skills, competencies, and practical experiences; wellbeing; persistence; and post-graduation performance. Demographic differences did not tend to have a large effect on the way students defined their success, which challenged previous findings in the literature. Students commonly suggested seeking additional practical experience as the best way to attain their future career goals. This updated definition of student success better represents the interests of all stakeholders in the academic environment, including students, and provides valuable insight to the engineering education community. Educators can use the results of this research study as a resource and inspiration in teaching and mentoring students to achieve their own personal version of success.
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