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Development of PBL Students as Self-Directed Learners

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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

Student Success II: Self-Regulatory, Metacognitive, and Professional Skills

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Ronald R. Ulseth Iron Range Engineering

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Ron Ulseth directs and instructs in the Iron Range Engineering program in Virginia, Minnesota and he teaches in the Itasca Community College engineering program in Grand Rapids, MN. He was instrumental in growing the Itasca program from 10 students in 1992 to 160 students in 2010. In 2009, he worked with a national development team of engineering educators to develop the 100% PBL curriculum used in the Iron Range model. He has successfully acquired and managed over $10 million in educational grants including as PI on 7 grants from NSF. He has been in the classroom, teaching more than 20 credits per year to engineering students for more than 25 years. His specific areas of expertise are in active learning, faculty development, and learning community development. He has been awarded the 2012 Progress Minnesota award, 2012 Labovitz Entrepreneurialism award, and 2012 Innovator of the Year award from the Rural Community College Alliance all for his work in developing the Iron Range Engineering program. His degrees are in civil engineering (B.S., University of North Dakota), and mechanical engineering (M.S., University of Central Florida). He is licensed as a professional engineer in the state of Minnesota.

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This research paper describes the study of the impact of a project-based learning (PBL) curriculum on the learners’ development of self-directed learning abilities. The motivation for this study is that self-directed learning (SDL) ability is positioned as one of the essential outcomes of engineering education. This can be seen in the following quote from the International Engineering Alliance: “The fundamental purpose of engineering education is to build a knowledge base and attributes to enable the graduate to continue learning and to proceed to formative development that will develop the competencies required for independent practice.”

There are many terms that are used to describe the processes that are desired in and used by individuals when they acquire new knowledge. Metacognition, lifelong learning, self-regulated learning, and self-directed learning are among those terms most commonly used. The commonalities and differences of these concepts are presented in the paper in order to then describe the development of the self-directed learning abilities in undergraduate students.

This research is grounded in the prior works of others who have studied the changes of engineering students’ SDL abilities across the four to five years of an undergraduate education. Prior studies by multiple researchers indicate students experiencing PBL curricula have experienced significant growth. These studies all used the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS), a commercially available tool that has been administered to 120,000 adults and as been used in over 90 PhD studies.

The researchers developed qualitative study in an attempt to characterize how the PBL graduates experience self-directed learning. 27 PBL graduates were interviewed. A phenomenographic methodology was used to determine how the graduates experience SDL in their engineering practice.

The result of the qualitative study is a set of six different “ways of experiencing”. In a phenomenography, the “ways of experiencing” are the outcome space. By studying and interpreting the different ways of experiencing, academic decision makers who are considering the implementation of PBL can contemplate how these results can impact their design decisions.

Ulseth, R. R. (2016, June), Development of PBL Students as Self-Directed Learners Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26823

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