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Opinion by Paul S. Goodman

Shared Expectations

Students and schools need to reach an understanding of what makes an engineer.

A learning “contract” pays off in enthusiasm and graduation rates.New colleges are being launched throughout the world to meet a growing demand for well-trained engineers, particularly in emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil. This trend presents educators with the chance to design programs from scratch and decide what to borrow – or not – from existing high-quality engineering schools. It also affords established schools a chance to witness and adopt successful new practices.

One notable start-up in the United States is the Olin College of Engineering, which attracted top-notch faculty and students to collaborate on a new approach to engineering education. Obviously, no model fits every country or situation. But my own experience in designing a variety of new colleges, coupled with research on both new and established institutions, has allowed me to identify key principles that can lead to success.

First, an explicit shared understanding about learning must be developed among faculty, students, and staff. I call this an Organizational Learning Contract (OLC) and believe that other desirable attributes flow from it. Developing a learning contract means that all participants know the specific learning outcomes – for example, design and group skills – that students are expected to acquire. If everyone focuses on a common set of skills, students are more likely to learn them. I recently compared two highly ranked engineering schools. In one case, a start-up with a strong OLC, students could readily articulate most of the skills they were supposed to acquire. Efforts were made both before and after the students entered the institution to reinforce a common understanding about these skills. In the other school, a well-known established institution, learning outcomes were merely mentioned in course syllabi or in curriculum documents. When we formally asked students to name the skills they were supposed to develop, they could not generate the list and embraced very general expectations, such as the prospect that college “will help me get a job.” Neither students nor faculty had a clear map of important skills or how they would be learned.

A second important principle is that colleges should provide a variety of learning environments, such as lectures, mentoring, group work, and peer teaching. Certain environments are more conducive to developing particular skills. Also, the opportunity to practice similar skills across different environments is another way to facilitate learning. Analysis suggests that multiple and varied learning environments – in and outside classrooms – go hand in hand with a strong OLC.

In my recent study, the institution with the strong contract offered explicit feedback and redesign mechanisms to accelerate learning. That is, students would develop projects around learning outcomes and receive feedback to improve these skills. Such features were absent from the well-established and ranked institution.

What are some of the consequences of strong contracts in new engineering startups? One critical finding is that strong-contract students have a better model of how to learn. Given the rapid change in knowledge, knowing how to learn over time is of critical importance. In addition, students are more engaged and motivated, which contributes to learning. There is good evidence that what students learn in the strong-contract school gets applied in company internships. Another important consequence is that these students have very positive attitudes about their learning environment. These extend toward both professors and the challenges students face in their courses. Students’ graduation rates are strong, and they have a very high identification with their institution.

Could OLCs, based on fundamental learning principles, be adopted by an existing engineering school? Clearly, such a change would come up against traditional practices. One way that I’ve found to overcome resistance is to start small, identifying a few generally accepted learning outcomes and building an OLC around them. Another way is to show senior college administrators a discrepancy between their impression of what and how students learn and evidence provided by students.


Paul S. Goodman, Richard M. Cyert Professor of Organizational Psychology and director of the Institute for Strategic Development at Carnegie Mellon University, is the author of Organizational Learning Contracts: New and Traditional Colleges (Oxford, 2011).




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