Professional Skills for First-Year Engineering Students

                              Gerard M Blair
                   Department of Electrical Engineering

                           Christine M Robinson
                      Department of English Language

                        The University of Edinburgh
                            Edinburgh, Scotland

           A new component has  been  introduced  to  the  first-year
      Engineering  course  at  the  University of Edinburgh aiming to
      promote study-skills under the guise of Professional  Engineer-
      ing.   This  article looks at the philosophy and implementation
      of this new component and relates our experience so far in  the
      hope  that  this may benefit other educators working on similar


There is an acknowledged need for engineering  students  to  acquire  basic
transferable  skills  to  be effective as practising engineers in industry.
Often it is the abilities to communicate with other people and to  organize
time  and work which mark out the graduate who is preferred for employment.
Many engineering departments have modified their courses to  enhance  these
skills  so  as  to  produce  graduates  who  are able to step directly into
positions of responsibility.

The greater need, however, is when students arrive at university.  At  this
stage,  the majority are coming with little or no experience of the freedom
which university life affords them. At the same  time,  they  are  suddenly
faced  with  a vastly different educational environment in terms of the way
in which knowledge is delivered and  the  amount  of  independent  learning
which is required.

The  key  observation is that many of the skills needed by new students are
the same as the "transferable"  skills  habitually  missing  in  graduates.
Thus  the  solution is to provide students with training in these skills at
the very beginning of their university education.

In fact, the initial motivation for this first year course  came  from  the
suggestion  of  fourth  year students.  Much of the material was originally
devised for a fourth-year module on management skills. When this was taught
for  the  first  time,  the  students  protested quite strongly that it was
coming too late in their career at university since it  could  have  helped
them throughout their whole degree.

Study-skills  teaching  is  approached by a variety of methods in different
universities.  In some,  such  material  forms  a  preliminary  module.  In
others,  the  material  is  offered  as  additional classes provided across
disciplines by central university agencies.   The  effectiveness  of  these
approaches  is  reduced by two factors. First, the courses are seen by some
students as remedial and therefore (if voluntary) are not taken by all  who
might benefit from them. Second, the fact that the study-skills courses are
seen as being unrelated  to  the  main  discipline  reduces  the  students'
motivation.  Our approach to these problems has been to provide training as
an integral part of the engineering curriculum  for  all  students  and  to
characterise  it  not  as  study-skills  but  as  professional  skills  for

Training in skills is hard  since  they  ultimately  must  be  adopted  and
personalised  by the individual student. It would be futile for the student
simply to learn skills as a set of  established  procedures  which  can  be
reproduced  for  examination  purposes;  success  only comes through active
practice.  The training has much in common with delegation. First, you have
to explain the problem; if students do not realize the need for and benefit
of a skill, they will not engage in its acquisition. Second,  you  have  to
provide  a  framework in which their initial work is performed: assignments
and delivery dates. Third, you need to give guidance on possible  solutions
and sources of further information and advice. Fourth, you must establish a
mechanism  for  providing  feedback  on   progress.   Finally,   and   most
importantly,  you  must  make  it  clear  that  you are handing over to the
student the authority to develop new and better  ways  of  approaching  the
task:  the student thereafter must take control of his or her own learning.
Only by gaining the active participation of the students  will  you  enable
them to take personal responsibility for their own skills' development.

First-year Engineering at Edinburgh

In  line  with  the  Scottish  tradition  for a broad education, first-year
engineering students at Edinburgh  University  take  an  integrated  course
which  covers  material  from  each  of  the  four engineering departments:
Chemical, Civil, Electrical and Mechanical.  This  combined  course  has  a
large class size of about 230 students.

For  the  1993-4  academic  year,  the  timetable was rearranged to include
Professional Engineering as a  fifth  component.  Although  this  component
lacked  formal  laboratories, it included instead written assignments whose
assessment counted towards the student's final  mark.  The  topics  of  the
twelve lectures are shown and explained below.

         |Lecture Topics                 |
         |                               |
         |Word processing                |
         |Writing I                      |
         |Note Taking                    |
         |Guest Lecture I                |
         |Writing II & Time Management I |
         |Guest Lecture II               |
         |Guest Lecture III              |
         |Writing III                    |
         |Time Management II             |
         |Career Planning I              |
         |Career Planning II             |
         |Career Planning III            |
Word processing
The  use of hand written reports in a professional context is now uncommon.
It is therefore appropriate to encourage students of engineering to  become
familiar with and to use a word processor.  To emphasise this, our students
were told that all of the professional engineering assignments  had  to  be
prepared  using  a word processor; some of the laboratory reports, however,
were handwritten at  the  request  of  some  departments.   With  the  word
processor comes many advantages.

The  actual  mechanics  of  teaching  word processing software are now very
simple since the popular packages  come  with  excellent,  simple,  on-line
tutorials.   These  allow  the  student  to  learn quickly all the commands
necessary to produce high quality documents. In fact  we  ran  the  initial
laboratories  with  60 students (and PCs) at a time with four demonstrators
who were totally bored through the lack of student questions.

Automatic spell checking (complete with on-line dictionary  and  thesaurus)
are available. The advantage of having spelling checked by a machine rather
than a human marker is that the student is forced  to  find  (or  at  least
select)  the  correct  spelling  on  the  way  to  producing a professional
document.  This contrasts  with  the  human  marker  where  (if  caught)  a
spelling  error  is often noted and the correction/learning is then left to
the diligence of the student. Of course, not all errors are caught  by  the
spell checker (for instance: practice/practise) so the task of checking the
draft for spelling errors is only simplified, not removed.

The word processor promotes the effective use of layout. Students are  used
to  seeing  text-books  with  informative  sectioning of the text; with the
ability to mimic these styles, they are more likely to consider the use  of
layout in facilitating communication with the reader.

In  mandating the use of word processors, we are also addressing the hidden
agenda for promoting computer literacy. Despite the growth of computers  in
schools,  some  students  still either lack keyboard skills or are actually
computer phobic.  Since computers are an essential tool in their  education
during  later  years  (especially  for  CAE),  the students need to acquire
confidence as soon as possible.  It is better  to  learn  to  type  in  the
relative  calm of first-year rather than in the frenzy of final-year report

However, perhaps the most  significant  advantage  is  highlighted  in  the
following  extracts  from  a  discussion  document  at the 1993 Engineering
Professors' conference[1]:

     A vital aspect of acquiring understanding is trying to articulate
     one's understanding in writing or discussion.

     Word  processing provides important encouragement for students to
     express their own ideas and to develop their understanding, since
     revisions and corrections are so much easier to achieve.

To illustrate this, consider the  examples of student  errors shown  below.
These  were taken from  laboratory  reports  which  were hand-written. With
most  students,  the majority of errors in these examples would be clear if
the work was re-read - and they would be corrected if this did not  involve
re-writing  the  entire  document.  The  word  processor  facilitates  this

|                   Typical Errors in Laboratory Reports                     |
|                                                                            |
|Uppon constructing the circuit there were no faults in it and when attached |
|to the ossiliscope it gave the predicted wave forms. I found the  soldering |
|very easy.                                                                  |
|                                                                            |
|Resistive  sensors  could  also be used to monitor (and possibly intervene) |
|driving aspects in cars.                                                    |
|                                                                            |
|This Report will set out to assess ethanol as a fuel and how to compares in |
|cost  and  efficienty  to  that  of  petrol.  At the end I hope to conclude |
|whether ethanol is a viable fuel or not.                                    |
|                                                                            |
|This would result in the CO2 levels to rise as the trees and plants are not |
|turning it into O2 and is therefore helping the greenhouse effect.          |
|                                                                            |
|The first is unsuported the second has fixed ends.                          |
|                                                                            |
|The  beam with the fixed end's absorbed more energy, this is because it was |
|deformed in three places compared to the single  deformation  in  the  beam |
|with the loose end's.                                                       |
|                                                                            |
|Since  the  beam should be elastic and therefore directly proportional, the |
|time will be straight and the area will be a triangle.                      |
Of course, the process of revision and  correction  extends  beyond  simple
grammatical  and  spelling  errors:  it includes the clarity with which the
text conveys the students' own meaning and level of  knowledge.  Only  when
that  is  properly expressed can a tutor begin to deal with the problems in
the engineering.


For many school pupils, one of the great pleasures in opting for scientific
subjects  is  that  this  allows  them to avoid English; unfortunately, the
professional engineer cannot.

The three aims of the writing  skills  material  were:  to  demonstrate  to
students  that there was a problem, to convince them of the need to improve
and to show them how they could go about improving. The time available  was
short:  to  achieve  any  significant  improvements, the students had to be
persuaded to manage their own skill development.

The main difficulty of this exercise was in the provision  of  feedback  to
the  students  so  that  they  could  monitor  their  own  performance  and
improvements. The problem lay in providing such feedback to  230  students.
Our  solution  was  to  devise an assignment attachment which was completed
with the marking of all written work throughout the course.  This  included
the  laboratory reports for each of the four engineering disciplines; thus,
the  connection  with  "real"  engineering  was  made  explicit.   For  the
Professional  Engineering  module  itself,  the students had to submit four
short pieces (about 500 words) and a longer essay (about 2000 words)  based
upon  a  topic suggested by one of the guest lectures. The aim of the short
pieces was for the students to be able to focus upon  the  writing  without
the  problems  of organising large quantities of information; the essay was
then intended to focus upon the difficulties of structuring a larger  piece
of work.

The  assignment  assessment  broke  the  writing  task  down  into a set of
component skills as shown in figure below. The component skills were  based
upon  a  review  of  students'  work  from  previous years and included the
aspects of writing which are  most  criticised  by  employers.   Also  some
components (such as spelling and layout) were deliberately included so that
a conscientious but less-able student could quickly achieve improvement.

|Assignment Assessment Categories                            |
|                                                            |
|PRESENTATION                                                |
|    Correct format for task (essay/lab report/learning log) |
|    Legibility (handwriting, wp layout)                     |
|    Spelling                                                |
|    References (correctly cited, layout of bibliography)    |
|                                                            |
|COMMUNICATION SKILLS                                        |
|    Content                                                 |
|    Register (degree of formality, use of language)         |
|    Logical ordering (overall plan, paragraphing)           |
|    Well formed sentences (grammar, punctuation)            |

Each component was marked in one of four simple categories indicating:

o    very good

o    adequate

o    some improvement desirable

o    serious - requires immediate attention

with space for  specific  comments  both  on  each  component  and  on  the
assignment  as  a  whole  under  the  heading  ACTION  TO BE TAKEN.  It was
suggested to the students that, when preparing the next piece of work, they
should  always focus upon one component which had been poor in the previous
assignment assessment.

Although it was difficult to convince the students, it  was  stressed  that
the  categories  did  not  represent "marks" as such but rather performance
indicators.  This distinction was intended to raise the students' sense  of
personal responsibility: the categories were to help them to make their own
assessment, not for the tutors to assess them.

The lectures varied in content and objective. The first  lecture  dwelt  on
the  fundamentals  of  writing  in  general and on writing for engineers in
particular[2].   Subsequent  lectures  were  focused  upon   covering   the
predominant  problems  found  by  the  tutors in previous assignments.  The
students responded particularly well to exercises where poor sentences from
student  work  were  corrected first by them and then by the lecturer. This
seemed to convince them of the revision which they could undertake on their
own  work.  The  instruction  was  that all word processed documents should
always be printed out double-spaced and then  corrected  before  the  final

To  complement  the  purely  written  feedback,  surgeries were run to help
individual students. These tended to be used either by  non-native  English
speakers and by students who had been sent by their tutors.  Surgeries were
also very useful in showing students how to read their own work  critically
and  how  to  set about improving it. Some of the students interviewed were
strongly in favour of improving the writing skills of engineers but did not
think  the  lectures  applied  particularly to them until a few minutes had
been spent going over their work with them individually.   Students  nearly
always  recognised  and  corrected  grammatical  errors  when  asked what a
particular sentence meant; tips like  reading  over  one's  work  aloud  or
getting  a  friend  to  proof-read  seemed to strike home when they saw how
dramatically they could improve their work themselves.

Support material was provided in  the  form  of  written  guidance  on  the
component  skills.   It seems important to offer at least the first line of
support to students seeking information concerning ways to improve on their
previous   assignment  assessments.   In  fact,  interviews  with  students
revealed that these were seldom given  more  than  a  cursory  glance.   In
future  years  the  guidance will be presented in a more eye-catching form:
similar to quick reference cards for computer software.

Note Taking

None of the students in our first year had ever received any instruction on
taking notes in a lecture. Considering how much time they would be spending
in lectures during their degree,  it  seemed  worthwhile  getting  them  to
consider a technique.

The  topic  was  presented  as a variation on writing skills. Just as other
forms of engineering writing  rely  upon  communicating  information  to  a
target  audience,  note  taking  is  communicating  information to oneself.
Aiming at a clear, concise style, the note taker can dispense with all  but
the  barest  of  words  focusing  upon  the information points only and the
layout of the page can be used to represent the information structure.

To illustrate the advantages of this approach, the students were  asked  to
take  notes  on  a  five  minute clip from a video of an Equinox television
programme. They were then asked to swap notes and to compare what they  had
recorded:  no  one  felt  that they had learnt from their neighbours' note-
taking style. Then the lecturer simply went through  the  contents  of  the
video  clip  as  information bullet points on the board reproducing them in
less time than the original video clip.

While this worked well as an entertaining lecture, it would have failed  if
the  students  had not actually thought about the problem for themselves in
the context of other lectures. For this reason, we gave them some  specific
opportunities.   The  students  were instructed to treat the guest lectures
which followed as a chance both to practise this style of note  taking  and
to  evolve  their  own  approach.  In semi-formal interviews conducted with
students at the end of the course, note-taking material was singled out for

Guest Lectures

The  guest  lectures  performed  three  functions  within  the Professional
Engineering module. Firstly, they offered  an  insight  into  the  work  of
practising engineers. Each talk covered aspects of engineering which impact
upon the practising engineer.  Secondly, they provided structured  practice
for the students to explore techniques in note taking. Finally, they form a
wide but relevant range of topics for the longer  essay  assignment,  which
the  students  had  to  submit some time later.  For this they were told to
select a theme from any of the talks and to develop it  through  their  own
literature search.

The first-year engineering course had a unifying theme of Transport and the
Environment. With this in  mind  the  three  lectures  were  from  ScotRail
(signals  and  safety),  the  RAF  (aircraft  development) and the National
Engineering Laboratories (vehicle emissions).

Time Management

While the need for time management  in  professional  engineering  is  well
understood,  the  case  for providing instruction to first-year students is
less well established. Some argue that one of the main outcomes of a first-
year  at  university  is  that  students  mature  and naturally develop the
ability to manage their own time, that life is the best  teacher.   Yet  in
the  industrial  context,  there  are  many  training  courses  upon  which
employers expend considerable resources.  Thus,  many  are  convinced  that
"life"  is  not the only teacher and that the process can be accelerated by
explicit instruction in appropriate techniques. Our aim was to provide this
instruction for our students.

Local evidence for the merits of time management for students comes from an
on-going project monitoring first-year engineering students through the use
of  an extensive questionnaire on learning styles and preferences.  When we
were designing the professional engineering module, the results of the 1993
cohort of students were analysed to see if there were any significant links
between learning styles and performance in assessment.  In the event,  only
two   characteristics   linked   students  with  success:  "academic  self-
confidence" (rather obviously) and "time management".

The basic material for time management was introduced using  sections  from
two  Video  Arts videos. These have the merit of gaining instant attention,
but leave the problem of convincing the student that they have  any  direct
relevance  to  student  life.   The two section were shown in two different
lectures separated by four weeks. The intention was  to  raise  the  issues
early on in the course and then to suggest solutions after the students had
begun to appreciate the problems they were facing in  preparing  for  their
first  major  deliverable:  the  end of term exams. At the first lecture, a
booklet was distributed with sections to be filled-in  regarding  how  they
used  their  time,  what were their the major "time wasters" and how to set
and use objectives.

As a real-life example, the effectiveness of tutorials as a  mechanism  for
learning  was contrasted between a student who arrives prepared and one who
does not.  However, the emphasis was not only on the  management  of  their
study but also on the control that time management would give them over the
use of all their time.  Thus the amount of pleasure  they  get  from  (say)
sport  could  depend  upon  their  training  schedule;  the ability to drop
everything and to go out with a surprise guest may depend upon knowing  how
to  reschedule  other  essential activities; the freedom to go away for the
weekend without work suffering may come from scheduling  that  work  for  a
slack period during the week.  The theme was that as students they now have
sufficient control of their lives to make explicit decisions.  Finally, the
theme  was extended to discuss how they could now make decisions concerning
their time which could have  a  direct  impact  upon  their  futures  after
university.   The example was that they would be judged by future employers
by factors in addition to their academic qualifications - did  they  intend
to  achieve  anything else of note in the next four years and how were they
going to do that?

As an  anecdotal  aside,  over  the  past  three  years  of  teaching  time
management  to  first-years,  more  students  each  year have said that the
reason  they  came  to  university  was  because  there  was  no   suitable
alternative.  These  students  in  particular  need to establish a positive
objective lest their time at university is wasted.

As with the rest of the professional  engineering  course,  these  lectures
emphasised  the  need for the student to take responsibility. The following
is an extract from the booklet:

     Time Management is a tool which can help you  to  use  your  time
     effectively.  Just  as money is a resource which you have to look
     after carefully, so too is time. How you spend either  should  be
     planned,  monitored  and  reviewed,  or else they will be wasted.
     Time Management lets you manage time.

     The single most significant change between school and  university
     is that YOU have to manage your own time.

     No  one is there to remind you to do it - no one is there to make
     you do it - but this course is here to show you how.

Careers Planning

The final thrust of the module was a three lecture event on Careers.   This
was  organized  through  the  University  Careers Service which is actively
promoting early attention  by  students  to  gaining  work  experience  and
transferable  skills  from  the very beginning of their time at university.
The topic also represented a practical application of two skills learnt  in
the  rest of the module: planning careers, and in particular establishing a
suitable profile, is an important application of time management; the CV is
an essential application of writing skills. As such, the topic was intended
to reinforce the motivation for acquiring these two skills.

The first lecture was devoted to a set  of  short  talks  given  by  recent
graduates  about  their  experiences  in industry; they tended, without any
prompting, to dwell on the importance of transferable skills.   The  second
lecture  dealt  with  the  writing  of a CV and the third lecture looked at
interviewing techniques. The event was further supported with  material  on
how  to  develop  transferable  skills  at  university  and  on how to seek
relevant work experience.

Assessment of the Writing skills component.

The writing skills aspect of the professional engineering module seemed  to
merit  additional  resources to assess it fully. Particularly, we wished to
gauge the effectiveness of the  feedback  mechanism  for  promoting  active
development  on  the  part  of  the  students.  For this purpose funds were
obtained from the Edinburgh University Small Projects Development Trust and
Dr  Robinson  (one of the authors) from the English Language department was
employed  half-time  to  work  exclusively  on  developing   writing-skills
material  and  on  monitoring  student  development.  This  involved double
marking many scripts, conducting staff and  student  interviews,  preparing
questionnaires,  running  surgeries  and  monitoring  the  work of a random
selection of students.

A questionnaire was distributed at about the half-way stage to find out how
the  students were responding to the writing skills component. According to
the 113 responses, all but 2 students appreciated the need for good writing
skills and 51 had been convinced of this by the lectures.  74 students felt
their skills  were  in  need  of  improvement.  Concerning  the  assessment
attachments,  only 3 intended to ignore them; 22 thought about the headings
as they wrote; 83 looked at each assignment  attachment  to  see  how  they
could  improve;  and  39  compared  successive attachments to monitor their

The  quality  of  feedback  came  in  for  some  criticism  from  students.
Complaints  were  received  about  delays in returning written work so that
they did not have the feedback from  one  assignment  before  tackling  the
next.  They  objected  to  vague,  non-existent  or  illegible comments and
inconsistency in marking.  They also asked for errors to  be  indicated  on
the scripts.

To  ascertain  the degree of consistency in marking,  scripts from a cross-
section of markers were assessed independently. While small variations were
found,  the  degree of consistency was remarkably good. However, there were
occasional aberrations where assessment had  been  rather  impressionistic.
For example, a few scripts with no spelling errors were given an "adequate"
for spelling, presumably by analogy with the deplorable state of the  other
features  of  these  scripts. Certain markers seemed more committed to, and
knowledgeable about, good writing skills than others but this was reflected
in the quality of the comments rather than in the assessment.

Comparison  of  successive  assignment  attachments for individual students
confirmed what might be regarded as self-evident: students are more  likely
to  act  upon  clear instructions backed up with examples.  They cannot and
will not respond to vague remarks; it is very time-consuming to explain  to
a  student  how  to  structure a piece of writing but "Unstructured!" means
very little to the student and does not tell the student how to improve.

The students' comments regarding the indicating of errors on scripts seemed
to  be  justified.  Laboratory  reports  were often marked by post-graduate
demonstrators  who  very  obviously  had  neither  the  knowledge  nor  the
motivation  to  teach  writing  skills. Furthermore the marking of the four
short pieces and the essay by members of staff indicated  that  some  staff
training would be beneficial.

It  had  been  hoped  that  the  simple  marking proforma of the assignment
attachments would assist in the marketing - however, many staff  complained
about  the  extra burden involved in thinking about and marking each of the
assessment components separately rather than simply  assigning  an  overall
mark.  This  attitude may be exemplified in one of the most diligent of the
markers who nevertheless said:  "I  didn't  come  here  to  be  an  English

The  following  misspellings  were  found in laboratory reports without any
comments from the markers: effecienty,  oscilliscope,  ossiliscope,  guage,
corossion,   ethenol,   propelle,  similtaneously,  enevitablely,  accross,
excercise, finnished, jugement, prooved, necassery, emitts, wether, was'nt,
it's.   In  both  the  laboratory  reports  and  the  short pieces of work,
punctuation was seldom corrected and badly  formed  sentences,  if  marked,
were  rarely noted by more than an underline. Rather more care was taken in
the marking of essays.

There were occasional examples  of  misinformation  being  disseminated  by
markers.   Students  were  told  to  "use  the passive tense." Even if this
misuse of terminology were corrected to "use  the  passive  voice",  it  is
debatable  whether  the comment is of any real value. "Write impersonally",
accompanied by an example rewritten from the student's work might  be  more
helpful.   Often,  markers  failed to diagnose what was actually wrong with
badly formed sentences: comments like "long sentence" were commonly applied
to what were actually several run-on sentences.

Although  much  of  the  student  criticism  of  markers was justified, the
majority of markers did provide good  feedback.  The  questionnaire  showed
that  96  out  of 113 students found the comments helpful. The best markers
provided a lot of positive feedback such as "A good essay which  I  enjoyed
reading."   It came as a surprise to some students that their essay is read
by a real person who might actually enjoy it.  A few markers  showed  great
sensitivity in adjusting the wording of their comments to the abilities and
personality of the individual student, using humour with able and confident
students and finding something encouraging to say to students whose efforts
exceeded their achievements.  Where classes are large and  each  assignment
is  read  by a different marker, it takes a bit of extra effort on the part
of the marker to establish a relationship of mutual  respect  within  which
the  student  is more likely to be motivated and receptive to advice.  Even
the apparently small gesture of a marker signing the assignment  attachment
was appreciated by students.

On  the  credit  side,  the  assessment attachments were undoubtedly highly
successful in  directing  the  attention  of  staff  and  students  to  the
importance  of  communicative  skills  within  the Professional Engineering
module, an importance which perhaps they will  transfer  to  other  written
coursework  and  beyond.  Without  the  re-enforcement  of  the  assessment
attachment, the writing skills aspect of the course would almost  certainly
have been overwhelmed by the engineering content. The attachments were very
useful in drawing the attention of students to  their  weakest  points  and
directing  them  to action in a way which could not have been achieved by a
less  formal  method  of  feedback.   They   facilitated   the   continuing
development  of  the students each at their own pace and according to their
own abilities, directing their efforts to the needs of engineering  writing
for the professional engineer.


1.   "Developments in First Degree  Courses  in  Engineering",  Occassional
     Papers, no. 6, Engineering Professor's Conference, May 1993.

2.   G.M.  Blair, "How to Write Right", IEE Engineering Management Journal,
     vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 111-5, June 1992.

Gerard M Blair is a Senior Lecturer in VLSI Design at the Department of Electrical Engineering, The University of Edinburgh. His book Starting to Manage: the essential skills is published by Chartwell-Bratt (UK) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA). He welcomes feedback either by email ( or by any other method found here

Links to more of my articles on Training of Management Skills can be found here