Adapting Entry Level Engineering Courses to Emphasize Critical Thinking

  • Joe Hagerty
  • Thomas D. Rockaway
Keywords: ACCREDITATION, critical thinking, innovation, teaching methods


The University of Louisville recently developed a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) to improve undergraduate instruction across all disciplines as part of its ongoing accreditation requirements. Central elements of the plan are emphasis on critical thinking; integration of critical thinking throughout the curriculum; service learning for undergraduates; and a culminating experience. With the adoption of the QEP, instructors were asked to incorporate these concepts into their curriculum. One of the most interesting efforts in revamping course presentation has been to change the way a truly fundamental course, Statics, is taught. In order to modify the existing Statics course to meet the QEP objectives, minor changes were necessary in the areas of course design (course objective, culminating experience, flowchart of progress) and assessment procedures (pre-quiz, group problems, and optional final). The changes were not extensive, but rather only minor changes to presentation or organizational format. Statics is one of the core courses within the engineering curriculum and a significant amount of information must be conveyed and mastered. Thus, the changes presented do not disrupt the normal classroom flow, but rather shift the emphasis and language to incorporate critical thinking explicitly. To assess the effect of the modified course curriculum, data from four separate instructors covering 15 different classes and 672 students between 2004 and 2008 were compiled to identify baseline performance. Data compiled included not only final grades but also individual test scores associated with specific concepts. This information was compared to the Summer 2009 class (115 students) in which the course modifications were enacted. The exam questions presented were almost identical to those used in previous semesters to enable direct comparisons. Based on the data, after a slight shift in the focus of the class and the incorporation of critical thinking concepts, a marked improvement in student performance and attitude was observed. Thus, by repackaging the Statics course content to emphasize the goals established by the QEP, improved student interaction and understanding can be achieved. It is not always necessary to make broad sweeping changes to a course, but rather it may be beneficial to make a variety of little, incremental changes.