Asee peer logo

A Thematic Analysis on Critical Thinking in Engineering Undergraduates

Download Paper |


2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Student Learning, Problem Solving, & Critical Thinking 2

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.121.1 - 24.121.9



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Amy Elizabeth Bumbaco University of Florida

visit author page

Amy Bumbaco is a PhD candidate in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at University of Florida, USA. She is working on engineering education research as her focus. Her current research interests include first year engineering education, critical thinking, qualitative methodologies, and peer review. She received her BS in Materials Science and Engineering at Virginia Tech. She founded an ASEE student chapter at University of Florida and is currently an officer of the chapter and continues sharing engineering education research with fellow members.

visit author page


Elliot P. Douglas University of Florida

visit author page

Elliot P. Douglas is Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Dean's Fellow for Engineering Education, and Distinguished Teaching Scholar at the University of Florida. He conducts research in the areas of engineering problem-solving, critical thinking, active learning, and qualitative methodologies.

visit author page

Download Paper |


A thematic analysis on critical thinking in engineering undergraduatesThis research paper examines the meaning and enactment of critical thinking for engineeringundergraduate students. Critical thinking is considered an important topic in the engineeringcommunity as shown by valued attributes in the NAE report The Engineer of 2020 and in theABET EAC criteria. There is a desire to graduate engineers with the ability to think critically.Critical thinking research in engineering is limited to mostly measuring critical thinking in theclassroom and this research is generally conducted without a clear definition of critical thinking.Most definitions of critical thinking are not empirically based and there are none that are specificto engineering. Thus, in this paper we seek to provide an initial exploration of what criticalthinking is in engineering. We address the following research question: How do undergraduateengineering students perceive and enact critical thinking?Semi-structured interviews were conducted with five undergraduate engineering students. Theseinterviews focused on the ways in which students used critical thinking in their engineeringclasses. Interviews were analyzed using a thematic analysis. Statements in the interviewtranscriptions were coded with descriptive labels and these codes were then categorized intothemes.The students expressed confusion and felt unsure when addressing thoughts on critical thinking.They showed poor ability to articulate how they used or viewed critical thinking. Interviewsincluded contradicting thoughts and direct statements about not knowing how to express an idea.However, major themes emerged at the core of their interviews. Many of these themes dealt withwhat critical thinking involves. These themes include: applying a framework/plan, solving in anorderly way, weighing and selecting options, explaining and learning from others, usingbackground knowledge, making an informed decision, and needing interest or willingness tothinking critically. A major theme that arose was that critical thinking was often similar orequivalent to problem solving. This theme included three subthemes: figuring out what theproblem is, figure out why something is happening, and reaching a conclusion/solution. Thestudents also expressed views on the way critical thinking should be taught, indicating thatcritical thinking seems to be challenging for their instructors to teach but that it is important,especially for ‘real world’ work after academia. Some students also emphasized a potentialdifference in the process of thinking critically for other disciplines of engineering and othermajors; however, others believed that critical thinking was the same for anyone.Although students could express some ideas on their use of critical thinking, overall theyindicated that critical thinking is not explicitly discussed or addressed in their classes. Thishinders students’ ability to articulate and understand their ideas on critical thinking. Relatingcritical thinking to the engineering practices of solving problems, criteria selection, and theengineering process of approaching problems may help students learn critical thinking andunderstand what it means to them. Teaching students in the real world context also promoteslearning critical thinking. Critical thinking in academia and in practice is valuable to thesestudents, but in order to learn and understand critical thinking better, they need engagement fromfaculty and an emphasis on critical thinking from faculty and in the curriculum.

Bumbaco, A. E., & Douglas, E. P. (2014, June), A Thematic Analysis on Critical Thinking in Engineering Undergraduates Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20013

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2014 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015