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Are Students Overworked? Understanding the Workload Expectations and Realities of First-Year Engineering

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

The Best of First-Year Programs Division

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Darlee Gerrard University of Toronto

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Darlee Gerrard is a Coordinator for pre-university science and engineering outreach programs in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto. She is also a Ph.D. student in the department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) in the collaborative Engineering Education program. She received her Hon. B.Sc. from the University of Toronto, B. Ed. from Brock University, and Masters degree from Memorial University. Her research interests include exploring STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education through co-curricular and non-formal learning experiences, and investigating the equity and accessibility of STEM and post-secondary education.

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Kirstin Newfield University of Toronto

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Kirstin is a PhD candidate in the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Toronto and a part of the Collaborative Program in Engineering Education. Kirstin previously received a MASc in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto and a BASc in Geological Engineering at Queen's University.

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Narges Balouchestani Asli University of Toronto

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Narges Balouchestani-Asli holds an M.A.Sc. in Industrial Engineering and an Honors Bachelor in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Toronto. She also has a Master of Applied Science in Collaborative Program in Engineering Education. Her thesis investigated team level factors affecting innovation in multidisciplinary capstone design course. In addition to her research in engineering education, she has been involved as a teaching assistance with more than four engineering design courses from first year to fourth year.

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Chirag Variawa University of Toronto

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Professor Chirag Variawa is Director of First-year Curriculum at the University of Toronto, Canada. He received his Doctorate in Industrial Engineering, focusing on Language Inclusivity in Engineering Education, and is interested in understanding and mitigating learning barriers that affect engineering undergraduate students, especially those of diverse backgrounds.

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This complete research paper will describe a study that was conducted to investigate first-year engineering undergraduate student workload at a large North American university. The study was prompted by unstructured student feedback suggesting high workload, impacting their learning experience in first-year and motivated by a Faculty whose goal is to increase accessibility and inclusivity for all students. The multi-part study followed the 2016 cohort of first-year undergraduate engineering students as they completed their first-term of study. Each week in that term, a random sample of students submitted details of their weekly workload, including perceptions of difficulty, for each course quantitatively and qualitatively. These data are investigated in addition to information gathered at the beginning of term from all students and instructors of first-year engineering courses.

The analysis of expectations and realities of first-year student workload yields information that can lead to the development of a more integrated, inclusive first-year engineering curriculum. Observations suggest that workload almost doubles within the first three weeks of class and assessments (major and minor) have an amplifying effect especially as they can be inadvertently grouped-together on specific dates. Additionally, there appears to be a link between perceived difficulty and hours spent, with that link aligning better as the courses progress. Furthermore, data also suggests that the first-year design/communication course has a large spike in workload midway through the term, much larger than the increases seen in the heavy-weighted assessments in non-design courses. Qualitative responses suggest that students may feel less prepared for such courses, and consequently spend more time on them when compared to non-design courses.

A deeper look at the results suggest the emergence of several categories, some more dominant and impactful to first-year student workload and perceptions of difficulty than others. These categories, in decreasing order of prevalence include: Time, Volume, Course and Program Content, Transition, Instruction, Communication, and Expectations. From here, the observations clearly suggest that students tend to think of their time spent and volume of work completed on an activity significantly more often than references to instructions, modes of delivery, quality of instruction, and the expectations of the instructor.

Research Questions

The principal research questions driving this study are: - What is first-year engineering student workload? - How does student workload change throughout the term? - Is student workload affected by conceptual difficulty of course content?

The specific perspectives we are investigating to help answer this research question are: • What are the first-year undergraduate course instructors' expectations of student weekly workload? • What is the actual weekly workload for first-year undergraduate engineering students (hrs/week), and is this influenced by course difficulty and/or other factors (described both quantitatively and qualitatively)?

The research study has the potential to situate across factors for success in post-secondary education (access, persistence, engagement, performance, graduation), with implications for both the student and instructor. Data may serve to inform the development of cross-discipline engineering strategies for course and program design that addresses workload concerns. The information gathered may help promote a more inclusive and accessible first-year undergraduate experience by integrating an evidence-based understanding of workload.

Gerrard, D., & Newfield, K., & Balouchestani Asli, N., & Variawa, C. (2017, June), Are Students Overworked? Understanding the Workload Expectations and Realities of First-Year Engineering Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--27612

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