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Bridges and Barriers: A Multi-year Study of Workload-related Learning Experiences from Diverse Student and Instructor Perspectives in First-year Engineering Education

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

First-year Programs Division: Retention

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Darlee Gerrard University of Toronto

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Darlee Gerrard is a Ph.D. candidate in Engineering Education at the University of Toronto. She received her Hon. B.Sc. from the University of Toronto, B.Ed. from Brock University, and Masters degree from Memorial University. She coordinates leadership and community outreach programs in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, co-curricular and experiential learning, and the equity and accessibility of education.

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Chirag Variawa University of Toronto

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Prof. Chirag Variawa is the Director, First Year Curriculum, and Assistant Professor, Teaching-stream, at the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, University of Toronto.  He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, and his B.A.Sc. in Materials Science Engineering, both from the University of Toronto.  His multidisciplinary teaching and research bring together Engineering Education and Industrial Engineering to identify and mitigate learning barriers for diverse student populations domestically and internationally.  His work spans various engagements with engineering education, including collaborations with the Royal Canadian Navy on resiliency projects, graduate students on multi-institutional studies of teaching assistant efficacy and engineering curriculum planning, as well as using sentiment analysis and natural language processing to interpret large-scale student feedback. 

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This Complete Research paper reports on the work of a multi-year research investigation conducted at a large North American university whose goal includes understanding workload-related learning barriers for first-year engineering students and suggesting approaches to mitigate those barriers. Building on prior research in this area, this investigation analyses the responses of over 1000 first-year students and instructors, using a combination of tools that use quantitative and qualitative approaches. We use engineering approaches, including a systems approach and data mining, to analyse complex trends in the responses, working towards predicting when and where these barriers may occur, and preparing for them.

The principal research question is:

What experiences do students, instructors, and administrators report as preparing for (bridging) or limiting (acting as barrier to) success in the first-year?

Motivation and Background

Attrition of students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields can be as high as 50%. A number of studies have attempted to elucidate the learning barriers that perpetuate such high loss rates for first-year college majors, citing both structural and cultural challenges in undergraduate STEM programs. The motivation for this work emerged from anecdotal evidence suggesting that students are overwhelmed by their transition from high-school to first-year engineering. The intended outcome of this work is to establish a set of guidelines or principles that will inform the work of the first-year community at the instructional, advising, recruitment, and outreach levels. This study will situate across factors for success in post-secondary education (access, persistence, engagement, performance, graduation), with implications for both the student, instructor, and administrator to better align expectations with what students actually face in first-year.


The principal method used in this study and the previous phase of this study is an online survey (3): one survey which was distributed to all incoming first year engineering undergraduate students (N~1000); the second survey was shared with all first-year engineering course coordinators (“instructors”, N=10) who provided course assessment and scheduling data; and the third survey, administered weekly, was shared with groups of 20 first-year students from each program (N~120/week) throughout the first semesters in years 1 and 2 of our study. Both quantitative (multiple choice, scale) and qualitative (open-ended) questions were included and the same questions were asked to both year cohorts providing opportunity for direct, year-over-year comparison. The first phase of this study identified points where student workload mounted and categorized the types of concerns expressed by students throughout their experience.

This study will continue to explore information about the perceived difficulty of course content, the nature of that content with respect to the cultivation or fostering of resilience and grit, the perception of course assignments, deadlines and expectations, and the overall instructional experience. We will conduct peer-facilitated focus groups and consult with instructors and administrators, both within the institution and beyond, to explore the construction of learning experiences of students prior to and in the first-year. Building on this work, our investigation delves deeper into understanding the complete first-year engineering student experience as we negotiate the difference that may exist across key players in the first year ‘system’.


We begin to construct a system context diagram (SCD) to identify the interaction or experience types at work across a student’s spectrum of engagement. We posit that the scope of experience of the student in the first year is in a system comprised of interactions that rest largely within the influence of the University. We begin to visualize and map the interactions of the first-year engineering student. Each of the experiences defined by the student may include experiences they categorize as either a learning ‘barrier’ or ‘bridge’.

The evidence points to the critical role of educators in collaborating to construct learning experiences and interactions that acknowledge student experiences to support success in the first-year. We suggest that experiences that cultivate and foster student resiliency and grit, coupled with a clarity of consistent and available information, set students up for success as undergraduates. We begin to look at these elements as a system or spectrum of experiences at work, acknowledging how particular elements can be integrated into the first year experience, and prior, to create a lasting effect. Evidence suggests that a variety of factors prior to the first-year can better prepare students for success.

Gerrard, D., & Variawa, C. (2018, June), Bridges and Barriers: A Multi-year Study of Workload-related Learning Experiences from Diverse Student and Instructor Perspectives in First-year Engineering Education Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30156

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