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Approaching Questions Of Research Quality In An Interpretive Investigation Of Engineering Students’ Competence Formation

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Emerging Issues in Engineering Education Research and Pedagogy

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.216.1 - 13.216.16



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Paper Authors

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Joachim Walther University of Queensland


David Radcliffe

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DAVID RADCLIFFE is the Epistemology Professor of Engineering Education in the School of Engineering at Purdue University. Dr Radcliffe conducts research-in-practice in the places where engineers work and learn using contingent immersion with a focus on design thinking, learning histories, knowledge creation, innovation, sustainability, competence formation and new practices in engineering. This work is interdisciplinary and has multi-national and multi-cultural dimensions. He also conducts research on the design of creative learning places and ways to foster distributed communities of research practice in engineering education. He was formally the Thiess Professor of Engineering Education and Professional Development in the School of Engineering at the University of Queensland and is still the Director of the Catalyst Research Centre for Society and Technology there.

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

Approaching questions of research quality in an interpretive investigation of engineering students’ competence formation


This paper introduces an interpretive research approach as one possible way to investigate complex social aspects of engineering education. With the aim of exploring questions of rigor in the interpretive enquiry, we present the details of a study into competence formation of engineering students. The study employed focus groups with engineering students from Germany, Australia and the US, to investigate the phenomenon of Accidental Competency formation. After reviewing research design, data gathering and interpretation procedure we present examples for the different types of findings produced in the interpretive enquiry. These results take the form of explanatory patterns, rich descriptions and an applicability study. Drawing on examples from the research, we offer the following three propositions as a starting point for discussing the quality of interpretive research in engineering education: (i) traditional criteria of validity and reliability are not directly applicable to the interpretive enquiry; (ii) alternative criteria such as trustworthiness or authenticity do not offer an overall measure of research quality; (iii) to mitigate this, we propose a process view of establishing research quality in a documented and demonstrated procedure.

1. Introduction

Engineering education research is commonly viewed as an emerging discipline.1-5 The current debate is concerned with possible research areas of interest to the discipline,5, 6 appropriate research methods7, 8 and ways of conducting research of acceptable quality.1, 4, 9 In this context Borrego4 asserts that “the field of engineering education has not yet developed its first paradigm” with the term paradigm relating to “common terminology, methodologies, and standards of rigor.”

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of engineering education research, approaches and elements from both the engineering sciences and from fields such as the social sciences and educational research have been advocated.3 This paper argues that an interpretive research approach is one appropriate way of investigating particular questions within engineering education. To illustrate this, we present an interpretive study into the formation of engineering students’ competence10-12. This includes details about the research design, the data gathering, the interpretive analysis and examples of the types of results that were produced. Drawing on examples from this study, the discussion explores potential ways of establishing rigor in an interpretive enquiry. In particular, we offer the following three aspects as a starting point for a discussion possible ways to evaluate quality of interpretive engineering education research. First, we demonstrate that traditional conceptions of, for example reliability, are not appropriate to the nature of the research. In the second step, we draw on the literature from research traditions such as anthropology, the social sciences and education to explore alternative concepts such as trustworthiness and authenticity. Exploring the notion of authenticity in relation to an example from the data revealed that an application of such alternative criteria in the traditional sense of quantifiable benchmarks is not

Walther, J., & Radcliffe, D. (2008, June), Approaching Questions Of Research Quality In An Interpretive Investigation Of Engineering Students’ Competence Formation Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3371

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