Perceptions and Student Performance in Early Engineering Laboratory Writing

Charles Riley
Professor and Graduate Program Director
Oregon Institute of Technology

NeedEffective communication is the most highly cited outcome in higher education, whether the surveyed are students, faculty, or employers. Early lab courses are often the first exposure to technical writing for engineering students. Writing transfer theories provide valuable tools to bridge the writing transfer gap between prior writing preparation conducted by writing experts and technical writing instruction conducted by instructors in the technical disciplines. Exploring student learning in early lab courses has the potential to improve technical writing in those instances and beyond. While there are tools available to teach laboratory writing, there is relatively little research available that identifies particular student challenges based on prior writing preparation and even less support for faculty teaching writing at this level. Guiding QuestionsOur guiding question is “does prior writing preparation influence student laboratory report writing and performance improvements in early engineering laboratory courses?” To answer this, we surveyed students to see what they thought about their writing skills, prior writing preparation, and learning in early engineering laboratory courses. We also measured their laboratory report writing performance and performance gains during an early lab class. OutcomesOutcomes will be valid measurements of student performance and target areas for instruction depending on prior writing preparation. Key findings so far are •Writing performance and perceptions of writing preparation vary depending on writing curriculum.•Writing performance gains depend on prior writing preparation and vary according to specific skills like data analysis and use of proper writing conventions. •Some lab writing skills, particularly conclusion writing, are challenging regardless of writing preparation. •Writing performance gains may depend on instruction and may improve with tailored instruction in report writing. Data to examine this hypothesis are being collected this year. Modules targeted toward laboratory instructors are anticipated as a final deliverable for the project and are in development. Broader ImpactsOn the one hand, instructors who focus on writing are likely to have a positive impact on student writing performance. These instructors can use this research to further tailor their instruction to be most effective. This research and promotion of it may convince faculty who don’t focus on writing to do so, ultimately improving communication by engineering graduates. Broader impacts could also include a careful examination of how laboratory report writing is taught and supported early in the engineering curriculum. Curricular pathways related to writing are not always clearly defined. This research can inform the most effective approaches to take for students in a variety of writing curricula, including writing across the curriculum (WAC), first-year composition, and first-year composition as well as technical writing. This can support engineering programs in identifying a clear writing pathway throughout the curriculum that includes early laboratory courses and upper-division courses.


Dave Kim, University of Washington – Vancouver; Sean St.Clair, Oregon Institute of Technology; Ken Lulay, University of Portland; John Lynch, University of Washington – Vancouver