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Communication Class Size and Professional Identity

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Studying Engineering Education Research & Institutions

Tagged Divisions

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society and Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.366.1 - 26.366.12



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Paper Authors


Corey Owen University of Saskatchewan

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Corey Owen received his Ph.D. in English from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada in 2007. Since then, he has been teaching in the Ron and Jane Graham School of Professional Development in the University of Saskatchewan's College of Engineering. His research focuses on issues of rhetoric, identity, and learning theory, as well as medieval ethics and literature.

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Debora Rolfes University of Saskatchewan

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Debora Rolfes is an assistant professor in the Ron and Jane Graham School of Professional Development, College of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. She coordinates the required communication course and also teaches Oral Rhetoric.

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Communication Class Size and Professional IdentityThe research on the effects of class size on student learning is, after 90 years, still inconclusive.Those who argue that class size has little bearing on the learning outcomes of the students mightagree with E. T. Pascarella and P. T. Terenzini’s declaration that “class size is not importantwhen the goal of instruction is the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills”(1991, p. 87). Likely few of us would dispute that classes generally involve students’ learningabout a subject and developing their academic skills, but in programs such as engineering,classes are also—and perhaps in some ways, even more fundamentally so—about the formationof a professional identity.Engineering programs are particularly effective at forming the professional identity of theirstudents: long before they receive their professional designations, students refer to themselves asengineers, unlike students in other professional colleges, who do not identify themselves asdoctors, nurses, or accountants before they complete their professional requirements. As a resultof this strong tendency towards early professional identification, the traditionally less importantelements of the engineering student’s education, such as professional communication, risk beingtrivialized and can be mistakenly regarded as having only marginal importance in the career ofthe professional engineer. To use the terminology of the sociologist Thorstein Veblen, which isadapted and applied by the rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke, engineering students can develop a“trained incapacity,” that is, a “state of affairs whereby one’s abilities can function asblindnesses” (Burke 1984, p. 7), with respect to communication. An emphasis on engineeringcourses is, of course, proper and appropriate, but the not uncommon expectation that studentstake only one communication course, and that this course can range in size up to 1000 students atsome institutions, suggests to students that communication is perhaps not so important after all,in spite of the continuous reassurance by engineering colleges, as well as the ABET EngineeringCriteria 2000, that effective communication skills are crucial to an engineer’s success.In this paper, we explore how maintaining small class sizes, that is, classes limited to fewer than25 students, enables professional communication faculty to expand the identity of theengineering student to include proficiency in communication, and thereby to help overcome thetraditional “trained incapacity” their identity as engineering students promotes. To this end, weexplore the connection between learning and identity, as posited by such learning theorists asEtienne Wenger and Jean Lave, and explore the possible limitations of the current outcomes-based assessment. Also, we perform a resource-benefit analysis that considers the real financialinvestment of keeping communication classes small. ReferencesBurke, Kenneth. 1984. Permanence and Change: An anatomy of purpose. 3rd Ed. Los Angeles:U of California P.Pascarella, E. T. and Terenzini P. T. 1991. How college affects students. San Francisco: JosseyBass.

Owen, C., & Rolfes, D. (2015, June), Communication Class Size and Professional Identity Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23705

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