Self-Directed Learning in PBL

Document Type


Publication Date



Engineering education is at a crossroads. The desired attributes of the engineer of the future go beyond the strong analytical skills desired of engineers in the past. Future engineers must be creative, ingenious, and flexible. They must possess great skill as communicators and professionals. Above all, they must be accomplished, self-directed learners. Engineering education of the past provided explicit opportunities for students to develop strong analytical skills, but only implicit or worse, tacit, learning of these other important attributes. For our future engineers to develop high levels of skill and accomplishment, the days of engineering students having the majority of their time spent in lecture halls and doing closed-ended homework problems have to become a part of the past. If we want students to acquire complex skills, they need to spend much time practicing those skills and receiving ample formative feedback on their development.

Project-based learning (PBL) is a pedagogy perfectly aligned with the developmental trajectory of an engineering student. In PBL, students work on teams applying engineering design processes to complex, open-ended problems. They develop interpersonal skills, conflict management strategies, and professional responsibility. They write technical engineering documents and give professional engineering presentations. Their motivations to learn become greater as they are given autonomy, realistic challenges, and opportunities to become connected to each other and their profession. They gain identity as emerging engineers. Most importantly, they take on the responsibility of managing their own learning of technical knowledge. They learn how to learn. They become self-regulated, metacognitive, self-directed learners. As a result, engineers who graduate from PBL curricula are more ready to enter engineering practice and look more like the desired engineer of the future.

PBL engineering educations have been available to students in Europe for more than 40 years. In Denmark, the PBL engineering universities are renowned for graduating students with these skills and attributes. However, the dispersion of these models, especially to the United States, has been slow. Nearly 20 years ago, ABET published the a-k student outcomes, requiring engineering programs to graduate new engineers with many of the attributes listed above. Despite this, the pedagogies didn’t change and the attributes are not developed in the majority of engineering graduates. This chasm resulted in the initiation of an idea that turned into the development of a PBL model in the rural iron range region of Minnesota. Using the Aalborg model of PBL as a starting point, the Iron Range Engineering model of engineering education began in 2010. Through continuous improvement it has constantly evolved through the present day. This model of PBL is the backdrop for this study. Volume 1 takes a deep look at the theoretical underpinnings of themodel and provides a detailed description of both the model and the change processes involved in the model’s development.

The skills associated with being a self-directed learner (SDL) and the relationships between PBL and the acquisition of SDL skills are the focus of the research study in Volume 2. The theoretical perspective aims to explore how metacognition, self-regulated learning, lifelong learning, and motivation impact self-directed learning development. The literature review identifies a strong positive correlation between self-directed learning development and PBL learning environments. Quantitative research was designed to study the graduates of the Iron Range Engineering program to identify if the correlation exists in that PBL environment and how it compares to graduates of traditional engineering programs. The correlation from the literature was confirmed. The PBL graduates achieved significant SDL development whereas the traditional graduates did not. This result prompted the development of a qualitative study to explore the ways in which the PBL graduates experienced self-directed learning. Two models of understanding are presented. The first is a phenomenographic outcome space that identifies the various ways students encounter self-directed learning. The second is a detailed composite model describing all of the elements of self-directed learning that the PBL graduates employ and the processes through which they do so. The results of this research provide opportunities for curriculum developers and engineering instructors to contemplate how PBL curricula can be used in the development of the engineering graduates of the future.


Integrated Engineering