First Year Engineers – Given half a chance… Patricia Kelly

Teaching and Learning Development Unit, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia



ABSTRACT: This paper considers the role and significance of using Reflective Journals in a compulsory, first year engineering unit at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).  Reflective journals are not new but are seldom used in an engineering context, particularly at undergraduate level.  One aim was to engage the students in their own learning and to help them develop the writing skills many lacked.  Therefore the journals were a significant and integral part of assessment and provided scaffolding and formative assessment to help students improve both their writing skills and confidence. This was achieved.


At a deeper and more complex level, the aim was to help students to acquire a “learning ability towards a sustainable societal development”.  Their journals reveal that the process has helped students to integrate their learning into their lives as developing globally competent professionals, willing to think critically and assume responsibility for their impact on communities and the planet.  This raises further issues around engineering education in the 21st century, particularly in relation to offshore and on-line teaching.





“There is no place to begin other than where we are now”[1]

 BNB007 is an innovative first year Engineering unit designed and taught by an interdisciplinary team [17]. In particular, Deborah Messer, (the coordinator) and I have developed a productive collaboration since 1997, based on equality, trust and shared responsibility [2].  My contribution is through incorporating cross-cultural perspectives, principles of Teaching English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL) and critical futures thinking [6, 7] into content and assessment, both on-line and face-to-face. Our initial work on communication skills with 30 students in an elective unit, became a key section of a compulsory first-year unit with over three hundred students, for two hours per week, in a large lecture format. Maintaining our confidence in the early stages of an innovative development has been part of the challenge.  “Education,…and many other professions are all processes of facilitating the other to grow. A practitioner cannot support another in growing if they are not growing themselves” [8].


This paper discusses the benefits of using Reflective Journals with first year Engineering students. The benefits include improved writing skills, self-confidence and better interpersonal and intercultural communication in the linked teamwork activities. At a meta-level, there is evidence of growing awareness of their personal and professional responsibilities on a local and global scale.




As stated in the unit outline for BNB007, the aim of the Professional Practice module is “to help you identify and develop the skills necessary to be effective responsible and ethical professionals in a rapidly changing world.”  Two linked assignments, Reflective Journals (RJs) and a team-based project[1] are the way we have developed assessment as a “tool for learning and growth” [9, p.46]. Students write twelve (x 300 word) reflective journals, related to the lecture topics[2] in Module One, “Professional Practice.”  In Week six, we review the journals, which students send electronically for formative feedback, using the summative assessment criteria that will be used in the Week twelve. As the examples show, students find the journals useful even if they do not always appreciate the experience.  Their honesty indicates they are confident that criticism will be accepted.


journal writing has been somewhat of a challenge to me. I can’t deny that I have hated writing these entries but I do appreciate the skills I have developed.”  (Male, middle-eastern Muslim background, resident)


“…these journals have helped me reflect on what I have gained from this subject but I guess that is what this section is all about. All in all when I started this subject I thought it would be a waste of time but I guess I was wrong.” (Male, Non English speaking background (NESB) resident)


I have written elsewhere [3, 18] of the resistance the team has experienced from Engineering students when we introduced new learning activities.  This was due in part to lack of fit between some students’ idea of engineering and the personal learning approaches we were using. “Deeply reflective writing and understanding does not come readily to graduates of our schools and universities” [8, p203].   The writing we now require in BNB007 has some features that make it an effective and non-threatening entry to this kind of work for first year students, who come from diverse backgrounds with varying levels of skills.  For this reason, it may be useful in similar contexts in other countries.


  1. The RJs are linked to the content of each lecture, so that students can limit themselves to writing about the topic, with minimal personal comment if they wish.


  1. The 2000 cohort is typical in that it included students from over thirty different ethnic groups.  For at least some of these, the task required both a new genre of writing and one expressed in their second or third language.  Many were resistant to the idea, fearful, or both.  Rather than taking the “sink or swim, don’t spoon feed them” approach or ignoring writing standards as long as the message is understandable, we chose to support students to develop the skills they need. The process is scaffolded to guide students for whom writing is difficult and critical reflection is new.  Our “user-friendly” web-site includes an optional template for the first journal, with open-ended sentences to help students write the first reflection.  Many use and adapt this template until they feel confident enough to write without it.  This approach is based on a language development perspective, in which the teacher offers “information, modeling, guidance, observation, correction and encouragement”, taking more responsibility initially and gradually shifting it to students as they become more confident [10, np].  Critical thinking and writing requires confidence both in writing and in what one has to say.  Many undergraduates have neither of these skills. They also need to understand how such writing and thinking is relevant to their learning in the profession. The first journal must include a Personal Learning Agreement that students create from the models we suggest, based on QUT’s Code of Student Conduct and a suggested code of conduct for the unit.  Students found this very helpful in setting their expectations for themselves and the unit.


I feel Learning Agreements can be helpful in setting goals at the beginning of the semester, and can aid in remaining focused throughout the semester” (Male, mature-age)



  1. We now ask for the journals in electronic format, as it is more resource friendly and simpler in terms of administration. The “Track Changes” facility enables fast and legible feedback as well as providing an opportunity to develop a personal and trusting relationship with students.  Our experience confirms other research showing that the flexibility of word processing and ease of correcting have positive effects on students’ academic abilities and self-esteem 10].  Word Processing is one of the skills taught in BNB007, and students take pride in integrating their growing expertise into journal presentation.


  1. Our students have not yet been required to share their writing with their student peers.  It is between the individual and the tutor.  This makes it a relatively low “risk” activity.  With the right tutors, and allied with well-run group activities, RJs offer a safety net for students to experiment with a new style of writing and with challenging their attitudes and values. The writing I share here is from those students in the 2000 cohort, (94/300), who gave written permission to use their journals for research. However, the excerpts are representative of the hundreds of journals I have read since we began using them in 1999.    In 2002, we plan to introduce a new feature as part of the review exercise in Week 6.  The review journal will be based on an interview with a peer partner about their learning to that point in the unit. We hope that this will help them to engage with another view of the lecture material to that point, as well as requiring them to explain their own learning. It has the added advantage of making plagiarism difficult.



Appropriate personal qualities are a critical factor in successfully marking and managing the RJ process.  Bolton identified these qualities as “supportive, clear, facilitative, interactive”[8]. The two tutors who marked the journals were exceptionally able, mature women with exactly the right combination of personal, writing and professional skills needed.  I provided a second opinion, if required. This situation is unusual in that I work in staff development, not Engineering. However, I am responsible for the RJ section of the unit and my collaborative role includes offering support to both the tutors and the students.  I was available to students who felt they wanted individual feedback faster than tutors could provide it, particularly just before and during the exam period.  It is essential to show “a human face”, to make constructive comments and to respond to personal input.  The following example of feedback illustrates this.  I responded to a young female International student, who had sought individual help and whom I advised via email from Week One. The positive comments come first. I have encouraged her attempts to question her own thinking. I want to alert her to the fact that she needs to edit more carefully, without sounding “teacherish” and judgemental.   I was also modelling my own reflective practice in seeking her input to improve the web site.


“I like your conclusion. When you have learned something from the lecture, please include what lecture you are referring to and what you got from that lecture that has helped you in your reflections.  I like the way you are starting to question what you do. It would be good to apply this learning to your project.  Your writing is improving, You are just making some silly mistakes that I alerted you to before.  I hope this is helpful and constructive. … have you visited the website and had a look at the Reflection guide I put there? I would be interested to know if this is helpful or not so I can improve it for next year. Good luck for the next reflection.”




Students were asked to define what reflection meant to them at the end of their first journal.  Here are some of their comments.  I have not corrected the grammar. They all chose to use the open-ended sentence provided in the template.


Quotes: Reflective Journal 1.


“I now think that a “reflection” means writing down your thoughts, feelings and experiences of the certain topic.”


“I now think that a “reflection” means expressing personal thoughts and feeling about something.  By combining past personal experiences, personal moral and unique personal characteristics, a reflection on something can be obtained or expressed.” (Male, NESB, resident)[3]


“I now think of reflection meaning not just a fixing of thought on previous experiences but as a extremely useful motivational tool and a means of accessing one’s own progress through live what ever there endeavor.” (Male, ESB, Mature Age)


“I think that reflection means to analyse the information content so that I know what areas I need to improve to gain the pass grades.” (Male, NESB, resident)


Their final journals at the end of the semester reveal both a more sophisticated understanding and a growing self-awareness. This may be evidence of a move, in Barnett’s terms, beyond “critical thinking” to “critical being” [11, 19]. Walker and Finney reported similar responses from United Kingdom post-graduates required to engage in reflective writing as part of a mandatory generic and transferable skills module in a Masters of Research degree. “Rigorous inquiry into, and consideration of one’s own experience in relation to, what is implicit and considered largely self-evident can put significant pressure on the set of conceptions that provide a framework for interpretation of that experience” [11, np]. As with the Masters’ students, we have abundant evidence in the journals that opportunities to reflect “were themselves learning opportunities rather than merely measurements of independent outputs”  [ibid, np].   These first year students were also moving towards a “meta-awareness, an awareness of shifts in awareness, and the possibility of seeing things differently, calling into question the previous, and indeed, current ways of seeing” [ibid, np] and “indications of ‘on-the-spot’ reflection to reach clarity” [ibid].  The next examples demonstrate this change in-the-making.


 I am starting to think that the bnb007 project will come in handy after all. Come to think of it has helped me improve my communication skills and I worked in a team and we got along alright… Hmmm that’s one to ponder.” (Male, NESB, resident)


“At the end of the lecture I had come away suddenly realizing that there was more to engineering than just number crunching.”   (Male, ESB)


“Should we as engineers destroy cultures just because the wealthy businesses want something silly?  I think I just hit the topic.  Are there such people like ‘evil’ engineers, who don’t actually care for cultures, who don’t have international responsibilities?  I would say there would be, not so much ‘evil’, only cheap and quick.” (Male, ESB)


Ideally, RJs would be the foundation for a planned, developmental, critical thinking program that would become more open and collaborative each semester of a course.  Students could be encouraged to write more freely using more demanding techniques. These could include stream of consciousness, response to a critical incident and group discussions [8] or using “patchwork texts” [12].   Using the last strategy requires students to respond to a variety of texts, share their reflections and then review their work to find a theme which they make sense of “within an interpretive reflective framework”.   As Walker and Finney [11] urge, “the development of skills and knowledge can occur in an integrated and synergistic way”. These authors move critical thinking in research and pedagogy to include Gallo’s (1994) dimensions of “empathy and imagination,” as exemplified in the following journal excerpts.


I have come to realise that the skill of communication is very important in the development and survival of an engineer. I see that it is most important not only to convey one’s message concisely, clearly and appropriately, one also has to be able to be compassionate about the other person and be able to listen and provide critical feed back when necessary.” (Male, NESB, resident)


The next examples are two of the many in which students demonstrate their growing confidence to share and process the harmonising of their cultural knowings and experiences, whatever their backgrounds may be [13].  In the first, a student from the former Yugoslavia is a) sharing his life experience and b) critiquing and rethinking his usual casual dismissal of his father’s village life, to embrace the positive aspects it offered.


“Today I realized just how much I take technology for granted.   When I got home I talked to my dad. He is 53 years old and when he was born most of these things weren’t even invented. He gets offended when I laugh at the games they used to play and how he had to tend to the animals. It was so different then. But is our world any better then my dad’s childhood. For the right price we claim to have anything anyone could ask for: television, food cooked in only a few minutes, and you could keep on going and going describing the different things that you could HAVE. But we never mention what we can’t have. My dad ate all natural food from the family garden, milk from the family cows… while today we do not have any food that hasn’t been processed in some way or changed in another.”   (Male, NESB, resident)


The second example shows how reflection helped another student work through experiences that had clearly harmed his self-esteem. It is a compelling argument for professional development in cross-cultural skills for all teachers.


“Throughout school I was asked in several occasions to look the teacher in the eye, this turned out to be a mission, as I would get shouted at for not looking them in the eyes.  After this I really feared the teachers, but I have now lived in AUS long enough to look some people in the eyes.” (Male, NESB, resident)




The issues involved here also involve change at greater than a subject or even course level. I discuss some of the implications below.


Global Competency


In 1987 the late Tom Stonier wrote, “We can no longer afford a society whose progress depends on technologists who are humanistic illiterates” [4, p.91]. Action seems slow in coming. There is increasing pressure within universities for students to acquire worthy generic attributes as university graduates. These are set down in strategic plans.  But, it is easy to say that a unit or course values diversity and to use the rhetoric of  “internationalisation” as a cosmetic gloss, without making any effective changes.  In BNB007, our commitment to creating a safe and respectful environment for students from all backgrounds includes clear, public statements that a diversity of experiences is welcomed and valued, as in this example from the unit outline.


“BNB007 students are a very diverse group in terms of age, ethnicity, work experience & gender. We encourage you to value and include your own and others’ experience and ‘knowings’ in these reflections.”


Any such commitment needs to be formally stated in assessment, and embedded in lecture content, consistent lecturer/tutor attitudes, tutorials and meaningful project work before most students feel confident enough to incorporate their culture or gender-based experiences as a natural part of their work [3, 13].  We want them to develop skills beyond “global portability”.  This popular term can simply mean worker/graduates, technically-competent mercenaries paid to do what their employer tells them and to go anywhere to do it, with no interest in the consequences of their actions for that community or the planet.


The terms “global competence” [5, 14] and “global citizenship” [9] better describe the complex set of attitudes and attributes we have designed this unit to encourage. As Heath urges, we are facilitating “a space where the tensions and connections between the various identities student/citizen/worker are a means of transformation, one through the other” [9, p.55].


“The tutorial activity 1 ‘thinking about learning’ helped me to realise that I have many strengths to build on and a few weaknesses to work on. It helped me to see where these strengths and weaknesses are. I now think that a “reflection” means what we did today in tutorial one-by analysing feelings strengths and weaknesses you are in fact looking back on yourself or “reflecting”. (Male, ESB) (my emphasis)


The next example is a moving illustration of the third stage “reflection” in Belz’s (1982) model based in adult literacy.  In this stage, “the student is involved in the reidentification of the self as a learner and the rejection of the old self-perceptions that have stood in the way of continued growth” [ in 10, np]


Being a quiet person by nature, I tend to keep most of my thoughts and feelings to myself, and I have learnt by experience that this can often be the cause of many problems and can also make certain things more difficult than they need to be.  Earlier this week I found myself in a situation whereby I was having a conversation with a friend, and I was somewhat surprised to realise that I was telling him things that I don’t think I have ever talked to anyone about before.  Although this may seem somewhat trivial to most people, to me it signified that perhaps I was beginning to change, and that maybe I was becoming more like myself and starting to move away from the quiet and withdrawn person that I once was.  I also realise that this is just the first step in many to being able to communicate effectively with people and being able to express myself in a way that I have only been able to achieve through writing before now. (Male, ESB)


Intersections With On-Line/Offshore Teaching 


The global perspective uncovers additional areas of difficulty with teaching a unit like this offshore. The unit has a radical agenda through process and content, although not all lecturers would agree with this or see themselves as part of it. In fact, our differences may help to challenge students’ thinking, by presenting differing and sometimes inconsistent points of view.   Howevera reflexive education does challenge the status quo and as such is often problematic [15].

BNB007 is about to be taught at an offshore site. This is an increasingly cost-effective option for nations faced with educating growing numbers of students[4].  Reflective Journals are an integral part of the success of this unit in helping students into critical thinking and being. If the unit is taught without this aspect, to students who will do only the last year of their course in Australia, they will not have had the same opportunities to develop writing or critically reflective skills that their peers have had.  Moreover, the journals and the team project work together to underpin the current curriculum.


“I guess this journal should be a reflection of how the course is running and what progressions have been made.  Firstly I can honestly say that this course has changed the way I think about engineering.  The guest lecturers have brought a much different image of engineering to me.  I originally thought engineering to be lots of paper work, solving equations, crunching numbers and stuff like that.  But that kind of thing has not even come into the BNB007 lectures.  My picture now of being a professional engineer is a lot more exciting.  This involves ideas, proposals, considerations, cultural research, multi-lingual studies, and ethical guidelines.  Each of these words just mentioned has a large meaning in the work of what I understand the engineers do.”   (Male, ESB)



If we use RJs and reflective thinking, there is a corresponding responsibility to have thought about our own progress as reflective and reflexive practitioners.  There is a potential conflict here with corporatised universities who are concerned with marketing course content, but not the process behind it.  Halliday refers to homogenized curricula as “shopping malls of the mind” (Smith 2000). BNB007, for example, continues to evolve out of the teaching team’s struggles to do better.  It is more than transferable “engineering” content.  If the offshore unit does include the assessment as we designed it, who will assess the reflective journals? What guarantee can we give students in offshore sites, that the content of their journals will remain confidential? One obvious answer is that any concerned student will carefully craft a sanitised comment on their learning.  Alternatively, the journals may need to be re-negotiated or encrypted. All journals deserve to be marked by skilled tutors who understand the consequences of any betrayal of trust.  “When people feel free to say what they really think and feel, they are more willing to examine new ideas and risk new behaviours than when they feel defensive. If teachers or trainers demonstrate openness and authenticity in their own behaviour, this will be a model that learners will want to adopt.”[14]


There are implied and demanding professional and personal development implications. In increasingly diverse contexts, within and between nations, academics need to add at least, an “understanding of language and cross-cultural issues” to their skills.  This is a tall order for tutors, in particular, who are often pressured post-graduates with little teaching expertise or background. However, it is entirely reasonable in the long-term to support the development of these and other skills as integral to the role of globally competent teachers worldwide.  Badley [14] clearly summarises these skills as academic competence in a content area, (knowing what), operational competence, the increasing pressure for academic staff to acquire formal teaching qualifications (knowing how).  He adds to operational competence a new “socio-cultural” competence, based on “the need for a transformatory and democratic approach to one’s own teaching”.  When I introduced this “transformatory and democratic” concept at a seminar in my own university, one uneasy senior academic said, “you don’t want to be preaching revolution, do you?” This was entirely consistent with Badley’s comment that “given the growth of managerialism in our universities …the principles and practices of collegiality and democracy have been somewhat diminished and that university teachers will have to be encouraged and helped to re-discover their democratic credentials”.   This isn’t easy. “Our frameworks of value, understanding, self-identity and action all have to be continually in the dock” [19, p174].






Reflective Journals are proving an effective assessment and learning strategy in a variety of cultural settings   [15, 20].  We have used them to help develop writing and thinking skills in students with varying levels of skill and experience.  At a deeper level they can support a long-standing radical agenda that imagines graduates as “citizens first and employable graduates second”, [9, p.44, 18]. This concept of citizenship is about “connection and responsibility for self, for others, for changing what we do not like about our world” [9 p.45.]  In this sense, it is also education for sustainability. “Emotionally sustainable learning cultures…privilege relationships and purposeful engagement with learning over simplistic outcomes based teaching” [1].  I will explore this issue at greater length in a future paper.  But at any level of use, reflective journals need to be carefully planned and well supported. This means scaffolded learning, formative assessment and experienced, skilled markers who can respond with tact and empathy to any problematic issues that emerge.  “A permissive space is insufficient: the critical dispositions will only be developed if they are actively encouraged to develop”  [19, p.173].


I will leave the last words to a student, who illustrates a developing understanding of the collective responsibility of engineers and his willingness to accept that as an on-going personal and professional challenge.


“The engineering field .. are putting much greater emphasis on the impact of engineering structures on the environment…and although it costs more economically in the short term, doesn’t in the long term. We, as prospective engineers need this political and economic “fencing” to give our technology the necessary boundaries. Although some people see these as a restraint on engineering practices I feel that it is rather a challenge that we need to meet to achieve our best for society as a whole.”  (Male, ESB).



[I am grateful to the students of BNB007 who have generously shared their journals, my colleague Deborah Messer and to Dr Yoni Ryan and Dr Sohail Inayatullah for their helpful comments on the text.  This paper is a revised version of one  originally delivered at the Australasian Association for Engineering Education 12th Annual Conference, Brisbane,  26-28 September, 2001 ]





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This is a revised version of a paper presented to the AAEE 12th Annual Conference, Brisbane, 26-28 September, 2001.