Part of the
Centre for
Engineering Education
TU DelftTU EindhovenUniversity of TwenteWageningen University
Centre for
Engineering Education


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Project introduction and background information

After graduation, it is likely that students will work for an international company in the Netherlands, or abroad. This project will prepare students for this by explicitly engaging with the global context in their university education. Strengthening the link between context- and university education aligns with TU/e’s aim to educate so-called ‘T-shaped’ engineers: the project will contribute to students’ ability to communicate and collaborate not only across but also beyond their disciplinary boundaries.

Context learning approaches will teach students the skills that they will need in their future careers, in which they will have to (inter)act with(in) a broader, multicultural and transdisciplinary practice-context. By integrating the global context in education students will experience and learn about the importance to consider diverse social and cultural contexts, user backgrounds and expectations and ethical implications when designing technology interventions.

Objective and expected outcomes

Our project aims to explore and implement stimulating learning approaches, which link and integrate university education with the global context.

We will implement 2-3 specific learning approaches in the first part of a USE course sequence on globalization.

These learning approaches will include activities, in which

A) university education “is taken to the global context” by

  • visiting international companies, societal organizations and/or government authorities.
  • working on assignments (co-)designed with the actors mentioned above; students have to interact with these actors in order to execute the assignment.

B) the global context is “brought inside the university” by

  • expert guest lectures from the private, non-profit and/or public sectors.

Results and learnings

This project used an evidence informed approach in designing a new learning line. During this process, two elements were highlighted:

Teacher roles

The context-based learning approaches described in the previous section differ strongly on many accounts, but one of the things they have in common is the facilitating role which teachers play in the teaching approaches. Context-based learning is student-centred, which means that students play a significant role in deciding what they learn and how they learn it (Taconis, Den Brok, & Pilot, 2016). As a result, teachers play a less central role in context-based classes than they do in traditional classes. Instead of giving lectures, teachers provide support for student projects, and observe the progress of their students (Smith, 2002). While it might be challenging for experienced educators to take a step back and let students have such a strong influence in a class, Fechner and Sumfleth (2016) argue that it is limiting to the outcome of a context-based class when students are not given the freedom to choose their preferred problem situation or context, and instead learn with predefined settings.

For student-centred education to succeed, teachers need to create structures to aid student agency. However, giving students the freedom to influence the direction of a course can lead to unexpected turns, which in turn requires flexibility on the teacher’s part (King, 2016). Teachers also need to be flexible in the sense that, when discussions do not proceed as expected, they know when and how to adjust without impinging on student agency (Visser, 2017) (King, 2016).

There may be best practices when it comes to the role a teacher plays in context-based education, but the high demands which student-centred education places on teaching staff imply that the success of student-centred education depends greatly on the teacher’s enthusiasm and motivation for a project (Fechner & Sumfleth, 2016). Teacher preferences should, and will, therefore play an important role in the development of context-based education approaches for the USE learning line ‘Responsible Innovation in a Global Context’.

Assessment methods  

A key feature of the context-based learning approaches described in section 2.3 is that, in addition to attempting to cultivate conceptual knowledge, they aim to change the attitudes that students have about the specific topic. Where assessing conceptual understanding is relatively straightforward, assessing a change in attitudes is not.

For the assessment of conceptual understanding, having students write a report is the preferred method (Fechner & Sumfleth, 2016) (Smith, 2002) (Lee & Schottenfeld, 2012) (Vennix, Den Brok, & Taconis, 2017). This is likely due to the prevalence of project-based education in context-based learning. A big issue with assessing conceptual understanding within context-based learning is that it can be difficult for students to recognise and isolate scientific concepts within the contextual information provided (Fechner & Sumfleth, 2016). This issue surfaces especially when conceptual knowledge is presented in a contextualized manner during learning activities, but is assessed in a decontextualized manner. As a solution, teachers could consider making both the learning activities and the assessments contextualised.

As noted, the described teaching methods were not only designed for conceptual knowledge transfer, but also to change students’ attitudes; to cultivate more interest in chemistry; to increase engagement with the local community; or to instil an understanding of the importance of sustainability and a global perspective. An attitude change is much more difficult to assess than conceptual understanding. Three of the studies used self-reporting surveys to gather information about student attitudes as a result of context-based education (Lee & Schottenfeld, 2012) (Fechner & Sumfleth, 2016) (Vennix, Den Brok, & Taconis, 2017). The studies of the remaining teaching approaches provided purely anecdotal evidence of a change in student attitudes (Smith, 2002) (King, 2016) (Visser, 2017).

The prevalence of report-writing as an assessment method in context-based learning will be taken on board during the development of the USE learning line ‘Responsible Innovation in a Global Context’, as will the challenges of assessing decontextualized conceptual understanding and changes in attitudes.

Although the approaches discussed in the report are very diverse, there are various common elements among them. The final section in the report highlights the relevant lessons which can serve as a springboard for the design of the context-based teaching methods for the USE learning line ‘Responsible Innovation in a Global Context’. These general lessons, drawn by structuring context-based learning approaches along the categories of the curricular spider web, are presented in Table 5 in the end report.

  • Placing conceptual information in the right context can increase the perceived relevance of the conceptual information, and in turn lead to a better understanding of the concepts (Pilot & Bulte, 2006b).
  • The aim of context-based teaching approaches is often three-fold; 1) transferring conceptual knowledge relating to the course, 2) illustrating the importance of theory in practice, and 3) improving students’ attitudes about the field of study (Lee & Schottenfeld, 2012)
  • Content is largely course-dependent
  • In general, learning activities are student-centred instead of teacher-centred (Taconis, Den Brok, & Pilot, 2016). This means that, within the scope of the course, students’ interests dictate the conceptual knowledge transfer between the teacher and the students. Student-centred learning activities often involve an exploratory project, which students carry out individually or in groups. Allowing students to explore a topic in order to cultivate their own insights can make these insights more robust (Visser, 2017) (Taconis, Den Brok, & Pilot, 2016). The context in which learning activities are presented needs to be relevant for the course content, and salient to the students. It should therefore arise from prominent and contemporary social issues or from the students’ everyday lives (Pilot & Bulte, 2006a). However, if the context is meant to enable productive discussions about controversial subjects, it may be best to choose a real-adjacent context, and not a real context, as Visser (2017) shows. The different cases show that lab work, fieldtrips, and games are specific learning activities which can be very useful to the integration of concepts and context.
  • Context-based learning is student-centred, which means that teachers play a less central role than they do in traditional classes. Instead of giving lectures, teachers provide support for student projects, and observe the progress of their students (Fechner & Sumfleth, 2016). On the one hand, teachers need to be flexible enough to allow student agency. On the other hand, teachers need to know when and how to adjust to unwanted developments without impinging on student agency (Visser, 2017).
  • Context-based education is usually provided entirely in the classroom or partly in the classroom and partly outside of the classroom. King (2016) shows that context-based education which takes place partly outside of the classroom is more effective in terms of letting students interact with and learn from the context. However, the success of context-based education depends greatly on the teacher’s enthusiasm and motivation for a project (Fechner & Sumfleth, 2016). Teacher preferences should therefore play a significant role when choosing the right location for context-based education.
  • Assessing conceptual understanding is relatively straightforward, and can be done using a variety of traditional assessment methods. Having students write a report is the preferred method in the cases presented here (King, 2016) (Vennix, Den Brok, & Taconis, 2017). Assessing a change in attitudes is more difficult, and is either based on a self-report study (Fechner & Sumfleth, 2016) (Lee & Schottenfeld, 2012) or on observations made by a teacher or researcher (Visser, 2017) (Smith, 2002).