The ability to think critically is the paramount transferable skill for an engineer, and it is worth expanding a little on this, because it underpins everything we should be trying to encourage the student to learn. If you have the time, I recommend that you read the short booklet by Paul et al (2006). Don’t be put off by its title ‘The Thinker’s Guide to Engineering Reasoning’. One of the most useful suggestions it contains is to set students to read an article, research paper or chapter of a book and extract from it the following key points:
- Its purpose (what was it written for?);
- The key question which it addresses;
- The main inferences or conclusions;
- The concepts, theories or ideas which we need to understand, in order to appreciate the paper;
- The main assumptions made by the author (whether stated or not);
- The implications of the author’s reasoning (whether stated or not);
- The consequences if the author’s conclusions are ignored; and
- The point of view taken by the author (if she was writing as an engineer, as a politician, as a mother, or what?).
The students could then prepare a critique and/or a summary of the document. Alternatively you could set up a “journal club” to regularly review recent publications relevant to engineering …
The assessment of student reasoning skills is not entirely simple. A list of some resources to help can be found at http://www.ncsu.edu/per/TestInfo.html. One of the best-developed tools is a series of tests (and protocols for using them) devised by Anton Lawson which can be found at http://www.public.asu.edu/~anton1/LawsonAssessments.htm .
Lawson has constructed tests which can be given to incoming students to assess their ability to draw scientifically logical conclusions from simple data. The strength of his approach is that he not only asks questions but asks students why they think their answer is appropriate, thus revealing the nature of any misconceptions. Lawson’s tests are customised for Physics, Chemistry, Science and Biology but the large majority of material in the Physics or Science tests would be applicable to engineering, albeit with a few words changed. I recommend them to you.
Another tool which is more oriented towards assessing attitudes to the learning of a quantitative discipline is CLASS (Colorado Learning Attitudes). CLASS was designed for students of physics but should be almost equally valid for engineering by simply replacing the word ‘physics’ with ‘engineering’. [http://www.colorado.edu/sei/surveys/Faculty/CLASS-PHYS-faculty.html]
Yet another tool, which I encountered while reading The Second Machine Age by Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2014), is called the Collegiate Learning Assessment [http://cae.org/performance-assessment/category/cla-overview/]. This is an American test which, although computer-based, assesses extended text (essentially essays) which the student prepares based on sources provided at the time of the test. I have no direct experience of it, but it is claimed to test reasoning and problem solving skills, together with complex communication skills. There is some evidence that for many students these skills are no better developed at the end of a degree programme than at the beginning. If this is true it is a worrying conclusion for engineering educators!
Of course there are many other transferable skills which we hope to inculcate in our students. These usually include critical reading (see above), writing, technical communication and oral presentation (with or without the ubiquitous Powerpoint). The conventional wisdom, at least in the UK, is that this is best done subtly via existing technical modules rather than separately by stand-alone modules on ‘communication skills‘ or ‘technical writing’. However this does imply that Programme Directors must check that transferable LOs are in fact delivered (but not too often) in the technical modules which comprise each degree programme. It is rather too easy to establish an ‘oral presentation’ element within six modules within a year, when one or two would serve the purpose and deliver the LOs.