Year

2016

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of Electrical, Computer and Telecommunications Engineering

Abstract

Higher education in Australia is being transformed to focus more on student experience, but within the academic community debate continues as to the suitability and reliability of allowing student opinion to dictate quality systems. Research to date has been inconclusive in providing evidence to justify either side of the debate. Similarly, the focus on understanding if and how student opinion can define and improve quality in the engineering teaching laboratory is limited. This is important within engineering, because as a practicing profession the teaching laboratory is generally regarded as playing an important role in preparing graduates for their future careers. The purpose of this study is to create a more complete understanding of what contributes to a quality learning experience in the engineering laboratory

The research examined laboratory and student evaluation data between 2007 and 2015 for twenty-five courses in the School of Electrical, Computer and Telecommunications Engineering at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Most laboratory studies typically focus on one or two courses at a time for one or two years, which means this is one of the first of these types of studies to be conducted over an extended period of time.

A variety of research methods are used, underpinned by an iterative refinement process to understand the quality relationship between the laboratory demonstrators, training, laboratory experiments, facilities, resources and perceived learning. For the first time, various lines of investigation are used to develop a process map which indicates the interconnections between the laboratory variables.

This mapping found that student evaluation scores associated with laboratory experiments are linked to students’ perceived learning achieved in the cognitive and psychomotor domains, but they are also matched to assessment performance in the cognitive domain when measured by a laboratory exam. While laboratory demonstrators and questions to evaluate the facilities are not directly linked to learning, the mapping shows a complex series of interconnections that tend to influence student opinion on the experiment questions. The key to a quality laboratory experience are demonstrators that are well trained and mentored; laboratory activities that are engaging, with clear instructions, and teach fundamental skills like troubleshooting; the inclusion of additional resources that support learning in the laboratory, especially for students who do not follow the standard learning pathway; ensuring there is quality hardware and software; and ensuring an effective management structure is in place to ensure quality practices and promote continuous improvement.

The findings from this study advance knowledge by providing evidence that student evaluation data can be used to guide improvements in the quality of laboratory experiences. The mapping also provides engineering departments with a tool to design holistic laboratory experiences that provide positive student experiences and improved perceived learning in multiple domains. It also proves to Deans and Heads of School the importance of effective management structures to ensure quality and implement continuous improvement practices in the laboratory.

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