In his book Discussion of the Method, Billy V. Koen characterizes the engineering method as “the strategy for causing the best change in a poorly understood situation within the available resources” (Koen, 2003, p. 7). This characterization could easily apply to the instructional method: the strategy is to effect the best change in a learner or in the relations between the learner and a larger community of practice in an imperfectly understood situation with available resources. The worlds of engineering and education are not so far apart after all. Whereas engineers seek to change the material world, instructors seek to change students who inhabit that world, both for the better. “Better,” for the engineer, can mean less expensive, faster, or more durable materials and processes while for the instructor “better” can mean a more skilled, knowledgeable, or expert person who is essentially changed as a result of participating in a new community of practice. In both cases, “best” is accomplished through careful, informed design. And just as physical principles, that is, engineering fundamentals, inform engineering design, learning theory should inform instructional design. Thus, we make the case that designing learning environments without learning theory is comparable to designing a bridge without mechanical laws and principles. In both cases, the goal is unlikely to be accomplished; the learner fails to change in desired ways and the bridge collapses.
To address a common scenario in postsecondary education where faculty are not instructional designers with a toolkit of learning fundamentals but rather accomplished disciplinary experts, we offer a primer on theories of cognition and learning as they relate to engineering education. As with other theoretical disciplines, advances in our understanding of cognition and learning have proceeded through a series of Kuhn-like paradigm shifts. These shifts have occurred as psychology, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, artificial intelligence, and recently neuroscience have engaged the same two questions: What is the nature of knowing? What is the nature of learning? These questions are bound together, for conceptualizations of knowing have significant implications for conceptualizations of learning and for the design of learning environments. As the conceptualization of knowledge changes, so should the interventions enacted in the educational setting.