What Makes an Undergraduate Course Impactful? An Examination of Students’ Perceptions of Instructional Environments

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Conference Proceeding

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To provide significant learning experiences for undergraduate engineering students, educators have resources in the literature, colleagues, and personal experiences to supplement their course design process. This study aims to capture the stories of graduate students who are looking back at their undergraduate experiences and describing the features that made a specific course particularly impactful. Specifically, the goal of this study was to explore the educational philosophies enacted in the most impactful undergraduate classrooms, according to graduate students’ perceptions, for the purpose of designing effective instructional environments. To capture the characteristics of the impactful courses, graduate engineering students from the Georgia Institute of Technology participated in an online survey. Participants reflected on the instructional environment that best described their most impactful undergraduate learning experience. Open-ended questions provided students with the opportunity to further justify or clarify their responses. The analysis indicated that students’ most impactful classes were required, in-major, non-design courses. Furthermore, these courses were characteristic of instructor-centered philosophies, including essentialism and perennialism. However, when students did reflect on out-of-major courses, they tended to recount a wider variety of enacted philosophies, including more learner-centered ones (progressivism, social reconstructionism, and existentialism). Qualitative analysis of students’ descriptions of their most impactful classes revealed five major factors that contribute to the success of a course: course components, the instructor, the student experience, the subject matter, and other stakeholders (e.g., peers and teaching assistants). Exploring these impactful classroom experiences highlights connections between the literature and student experiences as well as supports new faculty who are considering the type of instructional environments they will strive to create in their own courses.