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Conceptualizing Student Identity Development through Self-Directed Learning Opportunities in the First Year of an Engineering Program

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

First-Year Programs Division Technical Session 2A: Using Alternative Measurements to Look at Students and Their Success

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Nick Tatar Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

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Nick Tatar, Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Instructor of Education: Dr. Tatar received his PhD from the University of New Hampshire where he focused on student learning and student motivation during the high school to college transition. He initiated and developed a first-year seminar course at Olin College, a course that focuses on working in teams, diversity, and self-directed learning. He enjoys collaborating with other faculty members in the classroom and is invested in research, classes and assignments that provide overlap and continuity within the engineering curriculum and engineering pipeline. Nick is also a mentor for the REU program at Olin which studies the educational experiences of undergraduate engineers.

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Lauren Van Beek University of St. Thomas

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Lauren Van Beek is an undergraduate studying Mechanical Engineering at the University of St. Thomas.

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Laura Ann Lilienkamp Smith College

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Conceptualizing student identity development through self-directed learning opportunities in the first year of an engineering program


Research on first-year students suggests the first semester plays a major role in student retention, particularly in fields such as engineering, as many students know whether or not they will continue studying engineering by the end of the fall semester and few students transfer into engineering after the first year (National Science Board, 2012). In trying to address problems such as retention, motivational psychologists such as Deci (1995) have argued that educators can do more to enhance student motivation by supporting their sense of autonomy. The need for autonomy in student development theory is also an underlying theme in promoting positive, or desirable, student growth and identity development (Chickering & Reisser, 1993).

In this research paper researchers investigated how first-year students spent six hours of free time as part of a first-year, first-semester course. The instructor designed these six hours to encourage student identity development in a self-directed learning environment. Students were given six hours of class-time back and instructed to sign-up for “mini-classes” and "seminars" that focused on activities of their own interest. Students selected activities from a wide range of opportunities on-campus and off-campus (speakers, workshops, seminars, tutorials) and were asked to record the activities they completed. These data were collected over the course of four years.

In order to understand the areas of development engineering students prioritized, these data were analyzed within the framework of Chickering and Reisser’s (1993) seven vectors of student development and Deci and Ryan’s (2002) self-determination theory of motivational psychology. Mini-classes were first categorized using Chickering and Reisser’s seven vectors: Developing competence, managing emotions, moving through autonomy toward interdependence, developing mature interpersonal relationships, establishing identity, developing purpose, and developing integrity. A quantitative analysis looked for any differences between data sets (class year), the different vectors, and the potential role of gender.

The researchers found Chickering and Reisser's theory to be a practical lens for understanding the theoretical role of different activities on student learning and development as engineering students in the study choose a variety of activities to pursue with their free-time. The research team found student development in the first year to be complex with students pursuing activities along all seven vectors, including many activities that supported multiple vectors at the same time. The researchers did find however that the students in the study were highly focused on activities that developed specific engineering skills and competencies and that many were focused on developing their sense of engineering identity. They spent significantly less time developing vectors such as managing emotions and interpersonal relationships. Additionally, the researchers found statistically significant differences in the kinds of activities that men and women pursued, which aligned with themes within the literature on gender differences between men and women.

Tatar, N., & Van Beek, L., & Lilienkamp, L. A. (2016, June), Conceptualizing Student Identity Development through Self-Directed Learning Opportunities in the First Year of an Engineering Program Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26561

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