Learning Innovation Unit, Dublin City University

Learning Innovation Unit

Learning Innovation Fund Awards

Dr Lisa Looney- Learning experience tailored to engineering students' learning preferences: a pilot initiative

Principal applicant

Dr Lisa Looney

School or Unit

Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering

Additional Applicants

Fiona Cranley, Dept Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering ITT Dublin, fiona.cranley@it-tallaght.ie

Amount requested


Summary description

This project will transform delivery of a core engineering topic at DCU to better accommodate a relevant range of student learning styles, particularly those of visual and active learners. We will empower student managed learning, in the context of the challenge of a real module. The target is `Strength of Materials', in which students gain basic analytical skills fundamental to a number of more advanced design and materials modules.

The proposal is to source, develop and implement instruments and materials needed to change the learning environment to suit a wider range of preferences in learning style, and rigorously evaluate student response. Supported by a collaborator from ITT Dublin, students will be drawn in as partners in the process. Their individual learning style preferences will be evaluated, their profile interpreted and discussed. Coaching will then be offered on managing their own learning experience more effectively, including use of personal study plans.

Project URL


Strategic Objectives

Objective 1: Creating and sustaining a dynamic learning partnership: the Networking University. Sub objective: 1.3.2 Individual Learning Styles and Learner Needs (part of sub objective 1.3 Student Managed Learning), and also 1.2 Reflective Learning from Practice

Strategic Context

A guiding principle of our plan is to provide students with access to a range of pedagogical innovations appropriate to their learning needs.

Clearly aligned with 1.3.2, this new initiative will be a pilot study in adapting a core module, for a typical engineering class size, to cater for a broad range of students' learning preferences, underpinned by study of those preferences. Well documented implementation and evaluation phases will provide a solid basis for delivering on action point 2 of this sub objective: an evaluation of the extent to which such an approach could be adopted in the Faculty. It will contribute to delivery of two of the three key indicators (personal study plans, programme evaluations).

Including education of students in learning styles and techniques, and facilitating use of personal study plans it will also be an important step in enabling reflection on their own learning (action 3 under 1.2).

Implementation Plan

This project will run April 2006 to June 2007, with funds being spent by end 2006. Initially current 1st year students will be tested as to their learning style preferences. This data will be evaluated by Fiona Cranley and used to assess the specific mismatches between the existing module teaching styles and student learning styles. Lisa Looney will then identify desirable changes in delivery structure, and specify particular necessary tools (visual aids, demonstration models, industrial visits, team-based exercises, regular formative assessment, feedback instruments etc). Synergies with previously DCU funded initiatives by Claus Pahl and Paul van Kampen will be explored. From Aug. 2006 through to Dec 2006 tools will be bought, designed, adapted or built by a teaching assistant working closely with Lisa. The module will be delivered, and a student `learning about learning' programme run in parallel.

This project uses the Felder/Silverman model of learning (1988, 1996), and draws on Fiona Cranely's research (2005) into `at risk' engineering students' learning styles. Relevant research lead practice publications include those on hands-on design, group work and lecture structure by Kalkani et al (2005), Cox et al (2005), Wood et al (2005), and Halstead et al (2002). A particularly useful publication by Felder et al (1996) addresses concerns expressed by Faculty who have implemented a student-centered instruction approach. It deals with practical issues including: getting through a syllabus, class control, student reaction, testing, group work, equity, minority students.

This is a challenging initiative. Research indicates that students do not necessarily recognize the value of taking on responsibility for their learning, and demonstrate preference for a more passive approach. This is why the parallel approach of `learning about learning' is so important. Fiona has observed that students are extremely eager and enthusiastic about such a personal and tailored approach to their learning experience.


This module is taken by all 2nd year students of the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering. They will have improved capacity to manage their own learning, and will on average be more successful that predecessors in achieving module learning outcomes.

The extent to which these improvements have taken place will be known by:

- monitoring student comfort level with new learning approach (which is expected to develop over time),

- surveying how well students feel they have mastered specific topics, with a focus on what most helped them do so. This will draw from student's personal study plans.

- measuring the change in the distribution pattern of exam grades from previous years and throughout this project, (hoping to reduce the cluster at (25-40%),

- monitoring lecture attendance and reported motivation for students most `at risk' of failure in traditional lecture environments.

Dissemination and Sustainability

Barriers to changing teaching styles include resistance by innovators to share course material in the public domain, and concerns of lecturers about the time involved in change, for uncertain benefit. Our dissemination strategy will address both issues directly. We will report directly to the DCU programme boards, and run `advocacy` seminars for colleagues of both institutions looking at practical questions of time, resources, skills needed to change course materials and lead student learning. We expect that this in particular will have a long term impact. We intend to submit papers to the Journal for Engineering Education, the European Society for Engineering Education, and to Engineers Ireland.

With development and evaluation phases funded under this grant, future costs in respect of Strength of Materials will be low. Colleagues wishing to adapt aspects of the study in their area should face lower development costs, in the range suited to School quality initiatives.

Detailed budget

€ 300 Travel expenses (DCU/ ITTDublin)

€ 6,000 Teaching Aids (Animations/ graphics/ demonstration model, materials)

€ 8,700 Teaching Assistant hours

€15,000 TOTAL

Under the current budgetary model, our School with high technical support requirements has almost no discretionary funds available to it, and not in a position to fun this proposal.

The project represents good value for money. Fiona Cranley will give freely of her experience and time, Lisa Looney will also invest considerable time in resource development, facilitating feedback, evaluating, and reporting. The School workshop will give time to making models.

Despite this commitment, change is unlikely to happen, or will happen very slowly without enabling funds. These are being sought simply for purchase of commercial resources, materials for models and time of an assistant to develop visual aids, models, team based exercises and feedback/evaluation instruments. The teaching assistant rate is based on four months salary for a recent graduate, and this will be spent (by hour/week) according to work pattern of the assistant recruited. A small amount to cover Fiona's travel to and from DCU for meetings is included.

This investment will be the lever to give life to the learner based philosophy of the Strategic Plan, and will impact on the learning approach of every undergraduate student in mechanical and manufacturing engineering.

Other Information

While this project is a collaborative work between DCU and a lecturer at ITTDublin, the immediate impact will most definitely be on DCU students and on learning practices. The vast majority of the money requested will directly result in materials for use in DCU modules.

More detail on background theory:

Fiona Cranley (2005) has identified statistically significant preferences for active, visual, sensing and global modes of learning in engineering class groups as a whole, and strong correlations between those 1st year students who fail one or more modules and those with particularly strong preferences for visual and active learning modes. To overcome problems of mismatch between teaching and these learning styles, Felder (1996) suggests that the lecturer should strive for a balance of instructional methods. If the balance is achieved, all students will be taught partly in a manner they prefer, which leads to an increased comfort level and willingness to learn, and partly in a less preferred manner, which provides practice and feedback in ways of thinking and solving problems which they may not initially be comfortable with but which they will have to use to be fully effective professionals.

Relevant Publications:

Cox, J.R. et al (2005), Teaching Professor, 19(5), p1-6.

Cranley, F. and O'Sullivan, C, (2005), Proc. Irish Manuf Conference, p.

Felder, R.M., and Silverman, L.K., (1988), Engr Education 78(7),p 674-681.

Felder, R.M. and Brent, R, (1996), College Teaching, 44(2),p 43-47.

Halsteed, A. and Martin, L., (2002), Int J. Electrical Engineering Education, 39(3),p 245-252.

Kalkani, E.C et al (2005), European J Engineering Education, 30(3),p 393-402.

Wood, J. et al (2005), Int J. Mechanical Engineering Education, 33(1),p 1-25.

Learning about Learning details:

We will feedback results of learning style preferences and instruct the class on how to manage their learning experience more effectively based on their specific profiles identified. We will liaise with staff of the Learning Innovation Unit in respect to development of personal study plans. Lisa will then deliver the module, train demonstrators, run assessments etc. Fiona, with the help of the teaching assistant, will monitor student reaction to this environment. The aim is a supportive but importantly a real learning context in which students can work through the negative `shock-type' stages, which are associated with a move to self managed learning (Woods, 1994), key to LI objective 1.3

Comments on the application process

Generally guidelines are very good, and access to general comments from previous evaluations useful.

The word restriction is almost impossible - often the instructions on what should be included in a section contain more words than the section allows! A section for listing cited references would help.