Engineering competence? An interpretive investigation of engineering students' professional formation

Joachim Walther, Nadia Kellam, Nicola Sochacka, David Radcliffe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

133 Scopus citations


Background: There is growing evidence that engineering students' professional formation is shaped by the interplay of explicit learning activities and various influences from the wider educational context. The unintended outcomes of these processes, or Accidental Competencies, formed the lens for an empirical investigation of this social learning system. Purpose (Hypothesis): The exploratory inquiry addressed the following research questions. What are influences that contribute to engineering students' professional formation? How does it occur and what are resulting competencies and incompetencies Design/Method: Data was collected internationally in focus groups with 67 students in their transition from university into professional practice. The students' accounts were analyzed qualitatively using the software NVivo7. From the iterative analysis based on a grounded theory approach, categories and subordinate clusters of influences, mechanisms, and outcomes emerged. Results: The following three forms of representation provide an authentic view of the social learning system under investigation: (i) a contextual model of competency formation illustrates the complex nature of the learning processes; (ii) an overview of the coding structure presents seven competence clusters (Flexibility, Interaction, Plan, Professional Realities, Self, Social Context and Technical); and (iii) thick descriptions from the students' accounts trace three characteristics of the complex learning processes (compound influences, ambiguity of outcomes, context-dependent nature of learning outcomes). Conclusion: Engineering education is a complex system where a range of influences outside the realm of explicit instruction contribute to the development of students as professional engineers. This study provides an evidence-based framework to consider this complexity in reflective teaching practice and innovative curriculum design.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)703-740
Number of pages38
JournalJournal of Engineering Education
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Accidental Competencies
  • Interpretive research
  • Professional formation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Engineering(all)


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