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A Perspective on Students’ Autonomy in Learning and Engaging in an Inquiry-based Learning Environment

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Developing Technological Literacy in Students

Tagged Division

Technological and Engineering Literacy/Philosophy of Engineering

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Paper Authors


Neelam Prabhu Gaunkar Iowa State University

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Graduate Student in Electrical Engineering with interests in electromagnetism, high-speed systems, sensors and engineering education.

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Mani Mina Iowa State University of Science and Technology

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Mani Mina is with the department of Industrial Design and Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University. He has been working on better understanding of students' learning and aspects of technological and engineering philosophy and literacy. In particular how such literacy and competency are reflected in curricular and student activities. His interests also include Design and Engineering, the human side of engineering, new ways of teaching engineering in particular Electromagnetism and other classes that are mathematically driven. His research and activities also include on avenues to connect Product Design and Engineering Education in a synergetic way.

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Inquiry-based courses are designed for students to explore and learn at their own pace. Such courses are designed for students to ask questions, think and reflect in the space of the classroom and beyond. The nature of freedom and openness in the inquiry classes often requires students to rethink their approach to classes. Many students are tuned to change and adapt to this style with ease. Meanwhile, some others fail to adjust due to prior notions or just busy schedules and lack of flexibility. Through this work, we hope to explore how students perceive freedom in inquiry-based environments. Some questions we attempt to address are: “Does the freedom help them to learn in-depth?”, “Are they inspired to think out of the box?” or “Does it deter them from trying?”

The nature of the inquiry-based courses at our university is such that students have the freedom to decide their own learning path. Students are provided with basic/essential background and are then encouraged to pursue their interests. Students can then start at a difficulty level of their choice and create learning experiences and endeavors that help them create connected stories of their own learning. This methodology has been used in technological and engineering literacy classes as well as engineering classes. The results show that there is more resistance in the engineering classes to such autonomy due to the fear of not being able to get a good grade compared to the Technological/Engineering literacy classes. However, the students in either path who can successfully find their interests and the right level of challenges (this will be mentored and coached by the instruction team that consists of the faculty in charge and the mentor and teaching assistants) do much better in their growth and retention of the material.

A student's autonomy is sometimes challenging for instructors. They need to patiently wait for students to learn at their own pace and not prompt them with ready-made solutions. This is commonplace when students don’t want to learn and are studying for the grade. Such students struggle with the open-ended nature of the course. Moreover, faculty struggle since they can’t proceed with the planned course schedule. In this work, students' perspectives on autonomy, their experience in inquiry-based courses, their challenges, and their successes will be evaluated through their reflections using phenomenographic assessments. In our program, this method was first started in the Freshman engineering class and then applied to technological literacy classes. In both, it has been very productive, as long as the instruction team, provide mentoring, reviews, and facilitate the students’ journeys.

Prabhu Gaunkar, N., & Mina, M. (2020, June), A Perspective on Students’ Autonomy in Learning and Engaging in an Inquiry-based Learning Environment Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34032

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