Theory vs. Practice: How should engineering education be studied?
Mark Atwater posted on October 25, 2013 |
A division is forming and being reinforced by the definition of “rigorous” research.

Engineering education has been changing with time. The desire to achieve “best practice” requires a clear framework for what is “best.” Finding the answer requires research. Research requires methodology. The choice between application-based or theory-based techniques is becoming a wedge in the research community.

In a Journal of Engineering Education guest editorial, Richard Felder and Roger Hadgraft explore these topics. The importance comes from “a movement … to make engineering education research more ‘rigorous’ by using methods and philosophies drawn from the social sciences.”

The definition of rigorous comes from a National Science Foundation-funded project known as the RREE project. RREE is an abbreviation for Rigorous Research in Engineering Education. The four levels of proposed rigor are:

Level 1. Excellent teaching

Level 2. Scholarly teaching

Level 3. Scholarship of teaching

Level 4. Rigorous research

Each one of these levels represents a more rigorous approach to engineering education. For example, Level 1 is defined as, “Good content and methods but no formal inquiry intended to improve teaching quality.” The most rigorous approach has an increased emphasis on examining  teaching and learning concepts and tying them to theoretical models.

As described in the article, the research community has begun to split into two groups: theoreticians and practitioners. The authors explain, “Those descriptions represent extremes, with many researchers occupying intermediate positions, but the existence of the two different camps and the danger of a widening schism between them are real.”

The trouble is in the definition of rigorous research. Practitioners focus their research efforts on developing and improving teaching structure and refining methods. Research requires funding, and here lies the problem. “…theoreticians have used a hierarchical model to sort inquiry about teaching and learning into different levels, with their own preferred approach clearly occupying the superior position.”  

Acceptance of the theoretician point of view could make it harder for practitioners to get funding for applied research. This has led to a rise in quasi-theoretical work. “…learning theories are treated like passwords to gain entrance to journals and funding agencies: they are cited in manuscripts as frameworks for research studies and then play little or no role in the studies.”

If the work is good enough to get into a journal or receive funding, does it need to “rigorously” examine theoretical underpinnings of learning or teaching? The authors go on to look at and offer alternatives for four hypotheses about the nature of engineering education. One of the most fundamental is a sort of chicken-and-egg scenario.Many engineering innovations have come before an analytic understanding.

Before statics came tremendous structures such as the pyramids and cathedrals. Before thermodynamics came steam engines which were produced and operated successfully. The engineering disciplines have been improved by analytical understanding, but they were not born from it. Both practice and theory are valuable.

In education, theories are not as easily tested and refuted. The data is not as definitive as in scientific study. It seems, then, that it is better to use those theories as one tool of many and not the only.


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