Exploring the Implementation of Care in Teaching in a First-year Engineering Course

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Virginia Tech

Instructors in higher education are typically hired for teaching positions based on their research expertise in a particular area, understanding that subject matter expertise is necessary for teaching and instruction. What is sometimes overlooked and not given enough importance is that teaching is also a relational activity, and because of this, care can be considered to be a fundamental component of effective instruction. Research has shown that some faculty are hesitant in showing care to their students since this might suggest a lack of academic rigor and lessening expectations for students. It might also be that faculty view care as a concept that does not belong in higher education and is something that is more appropriate for younger children. Yet there is research in higher education which shows that implementing care to students motivates them to perform well in class, meet and exceed the goals set for them by the instructors, make constructive improvements and create overall ideal conditions for learning. Along with this, prior research on care in teaching has focused mostly on primary and secondary education levels, with far less attention given to care in teaching in higher education specifically, and little in the context of Engineering Education. To advance our understanding of the potential value of care in teaching in higher education, this study presents an empirical case study of how care can be enacted in teaching in an Engineering Education classroom. The study draws on Tronto's political ethics of care framework, originally developed in the context of feminist theory and methodology, and operationalizes it in the teaching and learning setting by situating the context of the study in a first-year general engineering classroom in the department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. Since the purpose of the study is to understand what teaching behaviors can act as evidence of care, this context was selected as a likely scenario where these teaching approaches might be present. Virginia Tech is an R1 institution, the Department of Engineering Education values student-centered teaching, and the foundations of engineering course: ENGE 1216, is a project-based course where it may be more likely to see care being implemented in the teaching. Along with this, the three instructor participants that were chosen to bring light to this phenomenon have been recognized for their teaching expertise by being given teaching awards in the past, and also have experience in teaching this specific course, having taught it at least twice before. This study used a case study approach and included two interviews with the instructor participants to understand their general beliefs about care as well as how they intended to implement care in relation to Tronto's ethic of care framework. It also included three observations of their classrooms, one for each phase of the semester, and looked at three years' worth of students' SPOT comments. Tronto's framework includes four ethical elements: attentiveness, responsibility, competence, and responsiveness. Findings suggest that instructors' intentions with implementing care, their enactment of care in the classroom, and students' perception of what instructor behaviors they found to be most valuable to their learning, all have strategies and approaches that relate to each of the four ethical elements. The responsibility element iii was seen to have the most approaches and strategies. Findings also showed that despite different instructor backgrounds, beliefs and personalities, each instructor had relatively similar approaches to implementing care in relation to each of the four ethical elements, with some unique features for each instructor. There also seems to exist, a reasonable degree of alignment between instructors' intention with implementing care, their enactment of the care in the classroom, and what students commented was helpful. This study took a framework developed in accordance with another discipline and operationalized it in a teaching setting. It has shown what teacher behaviors can act as evidence of care in the context of Engineering Education. The study has also disaggregated common instructor actions that usually tend to be conflated, to more specific behaviors to understand the impact each behavior can have in relation to care. It has also grouped common approaches and strategies together that instructors use, to show how when this is combined, is also a way of implementing care. There are a list of specific teacher approaches and strategies that instructors should be using that can satisfy each element in the care framework and can thus implement care in the classroom.

care, case study, teaching practices