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The Unwritten Syllabus: It’s not just equations − Student thoughts on professional skills

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

FPD 9: First-Year Engineering Courses, Part III: Research, Sustainability, and Professionalism

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1240.1 - 23.1240.25



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Paper Authors


Stanley M. Forman Northeastern University

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Stanley Forman and Susan Freeman are members of Northeastern University’s Gateway Faculty, a group of teaching faculty expressly devoted to the first-year Engineering Program at Northeastern University. The focus of this team is on providing a consistent, comprehensive, and constructive educational experience that endorses the student-centered, professional and practice-oriented mission of Northeastern University

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Susan F Freeman Northeastern University

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The Unwritten Syllabus: It’s not just equations − Student thoughts on professional skillsTo graduate, engineering students must acquire technical skills. More subtle, andpossibly more important, they must gain a degree of personal and professionalmaturity. Much of the change occurs during the first year of school, enablingstudents to become polished during their upperclass years. Would they change asmuch over time if not for the indirect lessons imparted by their institutions?Many of the skills acquired are forms of additional personal growth of students thatmay be the result of indirect, undocumented lessons linked to values, ethics andbeliefs, that is, the lessons from the Unwritten Syllabus. These skills, frequentlydescribed as professional skills or soft skills, are often discussed by both teachersand human resource personnel. Skills such as creativity, motivation to learn,personal accountability and positive work ethic are not always subject to definedteaching methods. There are clearly benefits to acquisition of professional skills,but what methods and techniques provide paths to success in these skills? TheUnwritten Syllabus, if implemented correctly, may encompass many of theseprofessional skills, including intellectual curiosity, caring for others, honesty andability to overcome obstaclesIn prior research on the Unwritten Syllabus, a cross section of engineering facultywas surveyed and asked to identify professional skills needed and most lacking.The two professional skills the faculty identified as needed but lacking in theirundergraduate students are Time Management and Perseverance to Learn. Timemanagement is all the skills necessary to organize work, deliver results on time andgenerally be viewed as a responsible student. Perseverance to learn are the skillsencompassing a lifelong desire to learn, a willingness and a curiosity to challengeoneself beyond the scope of class.There were a total of 17 categories of skills identified by faculty as lacking. Thetop six, including the two previously described, were: 1) Time Management 2) Perseverance to Learn 3) Communication Skills 4) Professionalism 5) Personal Responsibility 6) Problem SolvingThis paper will present the results of further research specifically aimed atunderstanding student’s perception of themselves with regard to these skills.Do students see themselves as organized? Do they see themselves as eagerlearners? What skills do they consider are needed to be successful? What will theyimprove? The results will be drawn from a survey of freshman having just beguntheir undergraduate engineering studies at a major urban University. The studentsrepresent a diverse group drawn worldwide and therefore provide a cross section ofattitudes and experiences.Some initial results find both surprising and expected patterns. Students generallyrate their organizational skills as the same or better than peers, with few studentsbelieving they need to improve their skill. This is different than faculty reportedobservations. They generally believe they can handle college level work andwould spend 30 minutes to an hour tackling a new problem. They see their primeresources for help as the internet and friends, decidedly not the library. Instructorsare viewed as helpful, but are not primary sources. Students are unwilling to dowork they see as stupid, tedious, boring or not helpful to learning. Honorsstudents, though, may be more willing to do anything asked of them. And studentssee creativity, communication, persistence and teamwork as critical professionalskills for their careers.The ultimate objective of the ongoing work is to find methods to train students inthe professional skills of the Unwritten Syllabus. It is therefore necessary to knowboth what skills are deemed lacking and also to know student attitudes andperceptions to effectively devise teaching methods that will enhance skills whilesimultaneously shifting attitudes to match situational reality.

Forman, S. M., & Freeman, S. F. (2013, June), The Unwritten Syllabus: It’s not just equations − Student thoughts on professional skills Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--22625

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