Keys to Student Success: Support and Integration
A new survey tool opens a path to more reliable theories in engineering.
By Walter C. Lee, Allison Godwin, and Amy L. Hermundstad Nave
In recent years, colleges and universities have increasingly been called upon for answers related to the success of undergraduate students. In response, educators and researchers have emphasized outcomes and particular theories of student development—such as student retention, engagement, and involvement. However, student development theories are often disconnected from engineering education practice, failing to consider the diverse backgrounds of students and programmatic approaches aimed at helping students be successful. There is thus a need for engineering-specific theories and constructs to advance our understanding of student development and, ultimately, success in their engineering pathways.
To help meet this need, we developed the Engineering Student Integration Instrument (ESII), a new way of understanding and measuring student integration that draws on a recently developed model of cocurricular support (MCCS) for undergraduate engineering students. Integration traditionally refers to a student’s cultural fit within an institution and is sometimes equated with cultural assimilation. As a result, it may not accurately reflect the experience of underrepresented students, or those who do not fit within the dominant culture. In developing the ESII we drew from the MCCS because it interprets integration differently, focusing on whether a student has the awareness of and access to the resources necessary to be successful. It focuses on the support necessary for students to persist in engineering as opposed to their ability to adopt the values of the institution.
In developing the ESII, we provide the community with a new tool that can be used to explore students’ interactions with engineering faculty, staff, and other students, as well as their academic performance, participation in extracurricular activities, and professional development. We created survey items by drawing on a data set of actual student responses about how they benefited from support provided by student support centers, such as minority engineering programs (MEPs) and women in engineering programs (WEPs). These responses, which came from a diverse group of students from multiple universities, were transformed into survey questions. Before finalizing the survey, we sought feedback on phrasing, formatting, and validity from researchers, students, and a college administrator responsible for assessment.
To collect validity evidence, we administered the survey to engineering students at a large East Coast public university. A total of 586 students responded. Overall, the sample was representative of the racial and ethnic demographics of the engineering population at the university, although the proportion of female respondents was slightly higher than their representation among the school’s engineering students. Using the students’ responses, we conducted an exploratory factor analysis on half of the data and a confirmatory factor analysis on the other half. This approach allowed us to examine the structure and the fit of the developed instrument.
Our results showed the appropriateness of the ESII for measuring the integration of undergraduate students in engineering. The instrument is easy to administer and provides researchers with a more comprehensive and multidimensional way to measure student integration. Future studies should test the use of the ESII in other contexts, such as community colleges and nonresidential universities, to determine the extent to which these constructs are transferable. It is our hope that the ESII will increase the focus on the support necessary for students to persist, not on their ability to adopt the values of the institution.
Walter C. Lee is assistant director of research in the Engineering Education Department at Virginia Tech, where Amy L. Hermundstad Nave is a Ph.D. candidate. Allison Godwin is an Assistant Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University. This article is excerpted from “Development of the Engineering Student Integration Instrument: Rethinking Measures of Integration,” which appears in the January 2018 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education.