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How Much Can (Or Should) We Push Self Direction In Introductory Materials Science?

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Materials Science and Engineering of 2020

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

11.695.1 - 11.695.20



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Paper Authors

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Jonathan Stolk Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

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Alexander Dillon Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

How much can (or should) we push self-direction in introductory materials science?


A capacity for self-directed, life-long learning is often cited as a critical skill for tomorrow’s engineers. The student response to high levels of self-directed learning, however, is not always positive, particularly in introductory level courses. Some students enthusiastically embrace the control over their learning in open-ended situations. Other students, however, become frustrated and disheartened, and ask to be returned to a comfortable state of structure, guidance, and traditional learning. The self-directed knowledge acquisition in technical disciplines has historically been a controversial approach that deserves our close examination, as some students cite self-direction as a positive contributor to learning, while others report decreases in learning due to student control. In this paper, we explore the issues surrounding student directed learning in a project-based introductory materials science course. We present preliminary data on the student responses to open-ended projects and self-guided learning, with particular emphasis on the development of and changes in attitudes and self-perceptions of learning throughout the semester. Possible causes of student responses to self-directed learning are considered, and particular attention is focused on student comfort in self-directed environments and its relation to learning processes.


The reality is that someday our undergraduate students will not have us by their sides. Soon we will not be there to guide their learning, to structure their assignments, to inform them of the important bits of information, or to provide feedback on their work. As learning facilitators, we hope that long before that day arrives, our students will learn a few important lessons about learning. Undergraduates should recognize that they have the capacity to acquire and construct knowledge, to set goals and direct their learning process, and to assess and reflect upon their learning strategies and actions.

Calls for educational reform emphasize the need for new learning approaches that are student- centered and that aid development of broader skills and attitudes to complement traditional knowledge acquisition.1,2 A capacity for self-direction and life-long learning is often identified as a critical outcome for educational systems, and many assert that instruction that is focused on self-directed learning best facilitates understanding.3 We are clearly asked by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and other organizations to promote the development of students’ life-long learning skills through our curricula.4,5 Engineering educators generally agree that these skills are important – even essential – for success in today’s technology-centered environments with their ever expanding information bases. But how do we best promote student self-direction? One solution may be for educators to develop (i) a familiarity with the purpose and value of self-directed learning, (ii) skills in implementing and facilitating pedagogical approaches that effectively engage students in self-direction, (iii) a sensitivity to and understanding of the student behaviors in self-directed learning environments,

Stolk, J., & Dillon, A. (2006, June), How Much Can (Or Should) We Push Self Direction In Introductory Materials Science? Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--1066

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