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Accidental Competency Formation: An Investigation Of Behavioral Learning In Engineering Education

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Cognitive and Motivational Issues in Student Performance I

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.163.1 - 12.163.15



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Paper Authors


Joachim Walther University of Queensland

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JOACHIM WALTHER graduated from The Darmstadt University of Technology (Germany) with a Bachelor in Mechanical and Process Engineering and a “Diplom” in General Mechanical Engineering. As a PhD student he is now member of the Catalyst Research Centre for Society and Technology at the University of Queensland. His research interests lie in the areas of cognitive and social aspects of engineering competence.

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David Radcliffe University of Queensland

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DAVID RADCLIFFE is the Thiess Professor of Engineering Education and Professional Development in the School of Engineering at the University of Queensland. His research draws on and involves collaboration with the social sciences including education and anthropology. David is co-director of the Catalyst Centre and Director of Professional Development in the School. He was a National Teaching Fellow, in 1994 and a Boeing-
A.D. Welliver Fellow, in 1999.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Accidental Competency Formation: An Investigation of Behavioral Learning in Engineering Education Abstract

This paper examines the fundamental assumptions underlying the concept of outcomes-based education in engineering. Tensions between these assumptions that derive from the origins of the theory in the field of behavioral psychology and current practices of curriculum design in engineering are discussed. These tensions are potentially impeding factors in the successful implementation of the concept of educational outcomes in engineering education. Behavioral learning and its influence on the formation long-term behavior of engineering graduates is identified as particularly problematic in its relation to ways educational outcomes are currently implemented in engineering. This aspect of behavioral theory does not fit with the deterministic assumptions implied in the concept of outcomes based education and is thus commonly overlooked in the literature. However, empirical data from ongoing enquiry into Accidental Competence formation indicates that behavioral learning plays an important role in the overall competence development of engineers as the enter the workforce, particularly with respect to the formation of attitudes. The analysis of the critical incident data that was obtained in focus groups with engineering students shows that the processes of competence formation are a complex result of the interaction of explicit teaching efforts and other influences from the educational environment. The implication is that in addition to targeted teaching efforts, engineering educators need to consider these ambiguous learning processes on the level of individual educational interventions.

“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten”1 B. F. Skinner (1904 - 1990)

1. Introduction: Outcomes-based education in engineering education The rapid societal and technological changes of the last decade have resulted in a sustained transformation of engineering work and the engineering profession. Engineering graduates today are expected to be equipped with a whole set of new technical abilities as well as an awareness of the social and environmental implications of engineering work. In many countries these pressures have led to reforms of the engineering education system in an attempt to better equip students for the changed and changing demands of professional engineering practice.

Major reviews of education in the 1990’s in the USA2 and in Australia 3, resulted in significant changes in both countries. The respective reports resulted in ABET’s Program Outcomes (EC2000)4 and the Australian Graduate Attributes5 (AMEA), which both advocated a shift of the instructional paradigm from the previously input-, content- and process-oriented system to an outcomes-based approach.

The concept of outcomes-based education revolves around a list of desired educational outcomes. In the application of this concept to instructional design, the outcomes are broken down into learning objectives6, 7, subsequently learning activities are selected and delivered in order to achieve the learning outcomes. The student is deemed to be competent on the basis of the achievement of the outcomes, not on the basis of the learning inputs or the processes

Walther, J., & Radcliffe, D. (2007, June), Accidental Competency Formation: An Investigation Of Behavioral Learning In Engineering Education Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--1979

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