Asee peer logo

Billy Vaughn Koen and the Personalized System of Instruction in Engineering Education

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

Critical Thinking, Leadership, and Creativity

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.231.1 - 24.231.16



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Atsushi Akera Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

visit author page

Atsushi Akera is Associate Professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY). He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania, and currently serves as the Chair Elect of ASEE’s Liberal Education / Engineering and Society Division; an elected member of Society for the History of Technology’s Executive Council; as Associate Editor of the international journal, Engineering Studies; and a member of the Editorial Board of the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. the United States (1945-present). Publications include Calculating a Natural World: Scientists, Engineers and Computers during the Rise of U.S. Cold War Research (MIT Press, 2006).

visit author page

Download Paper |


Billy Vaughn Koen and the Personalized System of Instruction in Engineering EducationAbstractThis talk focuses on the work of Billy Vaughn Koen, an early pioneer in a student-centered mode ofinstruction called the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI). (Koen, as it turns out, is also the recipientof the top prize in our division, the Olmsted Award, for his work on the philosophy of engineering.)Under Koen’s leadership, PSI garnered considerable attention in ASEE during the 1970s, with summerteaching institutes, symposia, and featured articles appearing in Engineering Education dedicated to thesubtleties of this teaching method. Based on Skinnerian behaviorist psychology, PSI was born amidst therevolutionary political climate in Brazil under Juscelino Kubitschek and his successor. Working closelywith the former head of Columbia University’s Psychology Department, Fred S. Keller, Koen helpedtransport PSI from its original context in Psychology into the realm of engineering education, and intothe American post-sputnik discourse about a national and regional “engineering manpower(sic) crisis.”PSI continued to flourish in the U.S. during the early 1970s amidst the global spread of studentradicalism and new expectations about attention to undergraduate teaching. It was then eclipsed duringthe late 70s and early 1980s amidst a new discourse surrounding “national competitiveness.” This paperprovides a contextually driven account of the rise and fall of this one radical pedagogic experiment as away of understanding something about how engineering education and educational reform movementsfunctioned (and perhaps continue to function) within the American context.Longstanding members may in fact remember Koen and some of the core elements of PSI. Central to PSIwas its “go-at-your-own-pace” feature, capped by unit “readiness tests,” where students had to score100% on the test in order to move on to the next unit. In return, all those who completed all of the unitsin the course earned an “A”. For PSI to work well, the instructor had to create meticulously preparedstudy guides, providing in essence, a form of programmed instruction. There were no lectures, or rather,attendance at lectures was neither required nor the material tested, for lectures served instead as areward for those who had mastered the basic content. These different arrangements produced a verydifferent relationship between teacher and student. Crucial to PSI was also a group of student“proctors” (often other undergraduates) who offered guidance, tutoring, and most importantly, thepositive reinforcement that came with a student’s successful passage through a test. As assessed byeducational psychologists of the era, PSI produced impressive learning outcomes that could be one totwo standard deviations better than the outcomes obtained through comparable lecture-based courses.In a typical, successful implementation, 70% or more of the students earned an “A”.Unlike the original accounts of PSI, this paper adopts an analytic lens to examine more closely thebehaviorist foundations of PSI, and how the method fit within the educational reform movementswithin ASEE during the 60s and 70s. Being rooted in a defined branch of experimental psychology, PSIbrought scientific methods into the classroom, where the classroom was remade into a laboratory foreducational experiments. Given the meticulous record keeping of student progress that made PSIpossible, PSI produced learning outcomes data that served as a backbone for educational research. Notsurprisingly, PSI’s popularity coincided with the early years of ASEE’s Educational Research and Methods(ERM) Division, where the analytic results that PSI’s practitioners produced in abundance weresynergistic with the efforts of engineering educators who sought recognition for the research they did aseducators, and not just for their work in the field in which they were trained.PSI was also an early example of an “inverted” classroom, and the behaviorist foundations used for PSIcontinues cited by those who have designed the latest modes of instruction including MOOCs and otheronline learning resources such as the Kahn Academy. There are clear policy implications to be drawnfrom this similarity. The paper closes with a careful consideration of the historical lessons to be learnedfrom the rise and fall of this early educational experiment.

Akera, A. (2014, June), Billy Vaughn Koen and the Personalized System of Instruction in Engineering Education Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20122

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