Other papers and publications by the writer are available from his personal website



Foster, J.D.G., Masoso, O.T., Sebusang, S.E.M.  Uys, P.M. (2002, September). A Study of How Engineering Students Share Learning. 3rd Southern African Conference on Engineering Education, October 3-4, 2002. Durban, South Africa.


http://www.globe-online.com/philip.uys/ 200209uysengineeringstudentssharelearning.htm 


A Study of How Engineering Students Share Learning

John D.G.Foster, Okatoseng T.Masoso, Sebusang E.M.Sebusang, (Dept. of Mechanical Engineering), Philip Uys, (Centre for Academic Development), University of Botswana

fosterjd@mopipi.ub.bw; masoso@mopipi.ub.bw; sebusang@mopipi.ub.bw;




Abstract: The paper describes a simple study of the means by which engineering students learn from one another.  The groups studied were undergraduate and graduate students in Botswana and the U.K.  A questionnaire was used, designed to discover attitudes to giving and receiving peer help in their studies, as well as the means employed to facilitate it.

Results indicate that most engineering students see themselves as both giving and receiving useful knowledge through peer networks, particularly in matters directly related to their subjects of study. They most commonly select their associates from others in the same programme and they use a variety of means of communication. In many cases, they consider their peers to be as useful a source of learning as other academic resources, or better.


It is generally accepted that learning in higher education takes place in various environments both on and off campus, in groups or on one’s own, in formal and informal settings, in classrooms and also among learners themselves. Various newer communication technologies, such as email and message boards complement longer-established ways that students use to communicate with each other for the purposes of shared learning.

In an educational era where “constructivism” is regarded with much interest, the focus turns towards the learning of the student and how this occurs, from a traditional focus on teaching. Constructivism is a philosophical educational approach in which it is argued that since knowledge is socially and culturally constructed (Brookfield, 1985), it is the learners who need to construct knowledge for themselves. It argues that no two people have exactly the same personal constructs of knowledge (Zepke, 1998).

Implications for instructional design include a focus on the construction of knowledge rather than on instruction, developing contextually authentic rather than artificial learning tasks, setting collaborative tasks within clearly defined social contexts, giving students voice and ownership within the learning process, enabling students to construct knowledge from their own life experiences and awakening students to their part in the knowledge construction process (Boyle, 1996).

Uys (1998) further notes that students in a constructivist environment and skilled in the newer communication technologies, do not remain as “consumers” but emerge as active providers and publishers of information and knowledge.

In line with the constructivist approach, this study therefore investigated student learning within a social network of peers. Questions put to participating students sought information on

      the way that students chose others with whom to share learning

      the different sorts of learning that were being shared

      the physical means of communication, when this was not by face-to-face contact

      the attitudes of students to the sharing processes

      the perceived value of peer-group learning as compared to other learning resources.

The study is intended to serve as a baseline for a later assessment of the impact of IT-based class networking, via messaging and chat rooms, in groups exposed to eLearning technology.


Students or former students found at two universities contributed to the study by the completion of a questionnaire.  The bigger group, of 130 students, was located at the South Bank University (SBU) in London, while 66 students or former students at the University of Botswana (UB) made up the balance of the respondents.  The fact that the two universities are in very different situations provided an interesting contrast between the two sample groups, as to both what their students had in common and also where they differed.  Although the questionnaire answered was identical, the response of each group was therefore analysed separately.

It is important to note that participation was not offered to the whole engineering student population of each university, and the respondents should not be considered as a 'sample at random'.  Participation in the survey was voluntary to those students to whom it was offered.  Caution should therefore be exercised in drawing conclusions, particularly since the number of female students surveyed was small, being 9 % at UB and 5% at SBU, and because students of various disciplines including Civil Engineering and Chemical Engineering were hardly present in the respondents.

SBU data included students with date of birth ranging from 1953 to 1985, while those at UB had birth dates from 1961 to 1982.  Table 1 summarises the study programmes of the respondents.





B.Eng. Civil , Quantity Surveying



M.Sc. Telecoms/ Computer Networking, Software Engg



B.Eng. Electrical/Electronic, Telecoms, Software



B.Eng. Mechatronics



HD Elec/Electronic Engg



M.Sc. Building Services, Acoustics, Mechanical



B. Eng/ B.Sc. Building Services, Acoustics, Mechanical, Energy



HD Mechanical, Building Services



Other M.Sc.



Other B.Eng./B.Sc.



Other HD




Table 1:  Programmes studied by respondents



After some preliminary interviews with recent graduates and students in Mechanical Engineering, a questionnaire of 48 questions was designed.  The questionnaire, under the title 'Learning from Each Other' was offered to students during May 2002 at both universities, a time that coincided with examinations and ‘student assessment of staff’ questionnaires. 

The questionnaires were completed anonymously, and hence no check was made on the veracity of the replies.  However, the questions had been designed in such a way that there would be no rational motive for a respondent to give false replies or to complete more than one form.

The responses were analysed using SPSS version 11.


Respondents were asked to indicate for each of eleven learning areas whether their peers helped them, or they helped their peers, or both.  In items related closely to their studies, the most popular responses (see Table 2) in both universities indicated that help was both given and received, and that the level of activity was high: this applied to Practical Skills, Information Technology, Assigned Problems, Preparing for Tests, Preparing Presentations and Report Writing.  However, items unconnected or loosely related to studies drew a different pattern of response.  For these, few respondents answered that learning was both given and received, and the most popular response was to leave both check boxes blank, i.e. that sharing did not apply in their case.  The two items eliciting this type of response pattern in both university groups were University Rules/Regulations and Fashion.

Some differences in patterns of response between SBU students and UB students appeared in the questions concerning sharing learning about Problems in Life, Music and Leisure Interests, and Looking for a Job.  For these, the most popular response at SBU indicated no sharing (by leaving the boxes unticked) while for UB students the commonest response to each question was a double tick, indicating that they both get from and give help to their peers.

Shared learning

Neither get nor give,  as % of total responses (All, SBU, UB)

Both get and give,  as % of total responses (All, SBU, UB)

Practical Skills

12, 13, 11

45, 41, 54

Information Technology

8, 5, 12

37, 38, 37

Dealing with assigned problems

5, 7, 2

56, 48, 74

Preparing for tests

7, 9, 3

54, 44, 75

Preparing presentations

17, 18, 17

38, 33, 46

Writing essays or reports

16, 17, 14

36, 34, 40

University rules and regulations

44, 43, 46

15, 10, 25

Problems in life

29, 33, 20

34, 21, 60


52, 50, 57

9, 6, 14

Music and leisure interests

42, 47, 32

20, 9, 42

Looking for a job

33, 34, 32

27, 18,45


Table 2: Overall and split response percentages for the question items


Figure 1 presents the overall data as a bar graph, arranged in such a way that the activities in which students indicated greater co-operation are at the top; those where least sharing occurs are placed at the bottom of the chart.

Figure 1: Sorts of Learning where Students Share Skills

There is an interesting trend revealed by Table2: in almost all the parameters investigated, the UB respondents have a higher percentage of sharing.  Possible explanations for this trend could be based on a difference in the proportion of students accommodated on campus, or in the cultural differences between the two groups. European societies (dominant in SBU) are seemingly less sociable/interactive than African societies (dominant in UB).



Most shared learning takes place face-to-face in classes, study groups and laboratories.  This is clear from the responses that students gave when describing those colleagues with whom they shared learning.  The highest numbers of these were characterized as fellow students in the same year of the same programme that the respondent was pursuing.  The influence of other factors such as being in the same hostel, sports team or university club was much less significant.  This data is summarized in Table 3.





Same Programme of Study



Same Year of Study



Knew them before



Same Residence



Same Team



Same Society




Table 3: Characteristics of four fellow students with whom you share (average number corresponding to each description, range being 0 to 4)


However, when communication at a distance was important, clearly the most popular means employed are text messages via mobile phone and e-mail.  Among the students studied, networking via class chat rooms or electronic message boards had clearly not yet been established, while the use of a conventional letter (‘snail mail’) for these purposes had never been tried by most respondents.  Principal features of the data are shown in Table 4 and Fig. 2


Means of Communication















Electronic Message Board



Electronic Chat Room




Table 4:  Response Averages for frequency of using means of communication, where 0 = ‘Never’, and 3 = ‘Several Times Each Month’


Figure 2:  Means of Communication rated as used ‘Several Times’ or ‘Several Times Each Month’



Recognising that student attitudes to sharing knowledge and skills are an important factor in that process, the questionnaire attempted to poll the opinions of students in several ways.  Respondents were asked to rate the general level of co-operation in their class: the most popular response was ‘Good’; 78% of all responses were either ‘Good’, ‘Very Good’ or ‘Excellent’.  Students were asked to comment in their own words as to how the level of co-operation had changed since the start of their programme: this brought a variety of comments, mostly indicating that sharing had developed as students formed friendships and stable groups.  Some typical comments were:

We have become more friendly and used to each other” (UB B.Eng, Year 4)

Students became more interactive” (UB B.Eng, Year 4)

We became more of a team” (SBU B.Eng, Final Year)

However, several students also described negative tendencies, such as those expressed thus:

“…co-operation….decreased as the time elapsed and since some students moved off-campus and our meetings suffered.” (UB, Higher Diploma, Final Year)

Very poor co-operation in the final year due to competition among students.” (UB B.Eng., Final Year).


68% of the SBU respondents and 71% of the UB ones agreed with the statement that ‘you and your colleagues help each other but it is hard to say who benefits most.’  Student approval of various sorts of co-operation followed conventional lines in general, with high majorities of students approving co-operation in taking measurements, doing assignments and writing reports (91%, 86% and 86% overall respectively) while assisting another student during a test was considered not acceptable by 63% of the SBU respondents and 89% of the UB ones.


The final group of questions invited the student to rank ‘Knowledge from fellow students’ for usefulness in comparison with that from five other sources of learning: ‘Assigned problems’, ‘Lectures’, ‘Textbooks that you own’, ‘Lab Work’ and ‘Books from the library’. The average rankings from the responses to these questions show that lectures and assigned problems were valued higher than knowledge from fellow students, but sources such as books and laboratory work were of similar or lower value than the knowledge obtained by sharing.  Figure 3 presents data on these comparisons.


Figure 3:  Percentages of respondents that rank ‘Knowledge from fellow students’ equal to or more useful than that from each source



The engineering educator will rightly regard students as useful allies in the learning process for all her/his students.  In order to encourage the process of students learning from one another, we need an understanding of how they form groups, of the matters on which they do co-operate and of how they communicate with one another.

For the authors, one conclusion drawn from this study was that there were few significant differences in respect of the sharing process between students at SBU and at UB.  The main fellow-student resource continues to be centred on other students in the same programme and year, and the primary contact is a face-to-face one.  In order to encourage all forms of sharing, those whose job it is to facilitate learning must therefore

·         Demonstrate that they themselves value this learning resource;

·         Assist and encourage in the formation of stable groups among whom information can be exchanged (at SBU this process is deliberately promoted by social events arranged for classes);

·         Informally monitor at least some of the sharing process, particularly at the early stages of programmes and courses;

·         Be aware of all the possibilities for inter-student peer communication, and encourage students to use the most appropriate ones.


The use of class electronic messaging and chat rooms is at present quite insignificant in both the engineering faculties studied.  As suitable facilities become more accessible to students, the use of these technologies will certainly increase, but it is clear from the study that students are already using a new means of communication, thanks to the growth in personal phones.  Instead of waiting for the new classroom technologies to be introduced, we should be exploiting this new platform.  Universities and faculties could do this now by means of some innovative arrangements with the cell phone industry.  Any message that can be fitted onto two or three cell phone text pages could be broadcast to designated numbers, and this gives possibilities for arranging classes, on-line chat times, test dates and venues and notification of alterations.  Feedback and queries from students in text form could be ported to the instructor’s e-mail or possibly to his/her eLearning message pages.

As for the students, much learning is being shared now, but more could be achieved.  The percentage of students that regularly communicate with one another by e-mail is still relatively low, particularly at UB, possibly because of limited access.  Increasing the use of e-mail should encourage the exchange of data files in appropriate engineering software, with students working in teams when solving problems, improving designs, analysing data and preparing presentations.  This is of course the process in which today’s student will engage when he/she joins any workplace after graduation.  The more able students are doing it already and the rest must also join in.


The study has shown that engineering students at two universities on different continents share learning with peers that are mostly drawn from the set of same-year colleagues on the same programme.  Their bonds develop over the duration of a programme, and the instructor can help or hinder this process.

Students were shown to co-operate principally on those matters that they perceive as directly related to their coursework.  Those with whom they associate for such learning activities are not however much used as a resource for learning outside the curriculum.  Apart from face-to-face communication, most students at these universities make considerable use of telephones and text messaging to support learning from one another.  The use of e’mail was also significant, although rather less so in Botswana than in London.

The approval of sharing knowledge for the purposes described was almost universal.  All activities except the sharing of knowledge during a test received high approval scores.  Students value their peers as a source of knowledge.  In many cases they regard them as a learning resource that is more useful than book learning or laboratory exercises.

Finally, it is our view that educators and a solid educational rationale drive the use of educational technologies to ensure quality of learning (Willmot and McLean, 1994; Caladine, 1993). Learning environments should be designed or chosen so as to ensure an educational focus.  Educational principles must be pre-eminent, rather than the desire to serve administrative convenience or simply the latest technical possibilities.


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