Engineering Learning

In the era of the information age, technology, brain research, and the ubiquitous access to information have shifted the way people learn and our thinking about teaching. A core goal at Mines is to build on the rich faculty-student interactions and hands-on nature of learning at Mines in order to create the distinct and unique student experience that our students deserve, and that is needed to develop creative and pioneering professionals. To accomplish this goal, we are enhancing our learning experiences and courses by Engineering Learning.

Mines has a strong tradition of quality education. We do not take on these advances to fix a problem; we take these on to significantly innovate Mines’ educational experiences to become the leading institution for STEM education.

Engineering Learning is an intentional design process that positions students to cognitively engage with content and data using professional tools, while interacting and collaborating with peers to develop their content expertise, skills, and professional practices. The end goal is to create the richest opportunities for students to become innovative STEM leaders.

What is Engineered Learning?

The Trefny Innovative Instruction Center at the Colorado School of Mines promotes a model of course design and implementation that we refer to as Engineering Learning. We engineer learning to ensure the richest possible learning opportunities for Mines students.  Learning that is engineered is designed through an intentional and iterative process that is based on decades of education and cognitive research.

Engineering Learning begins by first clearly defining and articulating what are the intended learning outcomes.  Once learning outcomes are defined, then you design the most relevant ​way to assess student achievement of those learning outcomes.

As you continue to refine the learning outcomes and assessments, you step back to consider the learners, their anticipated prior experiences and understandings, common misconceptions, and the context/sequencing of the course. Then you design or select tasks to provide rich learning opportunities for students to be exposed to the content, struggle with the concepts, and work to apply the ideas and skills to master the learning outcomes.

This is a dramatically different approach than most instructors utilize in higher education.

Engineered Learning is not defined by textbook topics or sequence. Rather Engineered Learning focuses on designing experiences for the learner to cognitively wrestle with the concepts, develop professional practices, interact with peers, maximize the interactions between students and the instructor, and supports students as they tackle mastering the learning outcomes.

As the instructor, you are the designer of the tasks and the guide on the side, walking around the meeting space, naming what students are doing well, and asking clarifying and probing questions, or making suggestions to nudge them further down the road toward mastery of the learning outcomes.

You want to maximize the impact of the time students are in the classroom with you – so you are there to support them as they tackle the complex problems, as they struggle to begin a project, as they encounter anticipated snags or barriers to their learning, or when they need you to model an expert’s way of thinking about a problem or concept.

In essence, class time should be where students are challenged and guided. Out-of-class-time should be where students receive, gather and organize information. Most of your work is done outside of the classroom, selecting or crafting the tasks and organizing the resources.  Students carry the cognitive load during the class meetings.


Active Learning is an important aspect of Engineering Learning. Active Learning involves an approach to instruction that focuses the responsibility of learning on the students and requires active cognitive processing (more than passively receiving information).  It can be “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991, p. 2). However, the thinking should move beyond recall of information. Active Learning should develop students’ skills, attitudes, and content knowledge (all three) as they engage in higher-order thinking tasks such as analysis, synthesis, design, and evaluation. Active Learning requires students to do the cognitive work by reading, writing, discussing, analyzing, and/or solving problems.

Numerous studies have shown the positive impact of Active Learning on faculty productivity, student performance and student learning. Well-designed and implemented courses that are predominately organized around Active Learning are distinctive and often perceived of value.

Case Studies

Many Mines faculty members are working hard to increase active learning in their course.  Click below to read case studies about different courses that are intentionally designed to promote active learning.

The Engineering Learning Classroom Observation Tool (ELCOT; Tolnay, Spiegel, & Sherer, 2017) is a classroom observation tool designed to capture teacher activity, student activity, and levels of active learning. The ELCOT was developed to assess the effectiveness of the Engineering Learning Intensive at Mines, a month-long faculty professional learning program on Engineering Learning. 

When compared to existing classroom observation protocols, such as the COPUS (Smith et al., 2013) and the RTOP (Sawada et al., 2002), the ELCOT highlights complexities in the implementation of active learning that are not well captured in other protocols. COPUS was designed to asses increased student engagement in large lecture courses. The RTOP is closer to our desired foci by exploring student-centered, engaged learning practice, but did not have the sensitivity or interaction measures we desired. For our purposes, the ELCOT was better aligned with the aspects of the classroom we wanted to pay attention to: namely, the types of interactions happening in the class, the cognitive demand of the tasks being done by students, and the instructor practices as they align with the Engineering Learning model. Additionally, the ELCOT helps observers attend to the broader alignment between classroom activities and learning objectives, rather than the presence or absence of active learning alone. This allows individual faculty to identify opportunities for improvement in alignment. At the same time, the whole data set reflects patterns of need that the Center can support.



Under construction

We currently offer two Engineering Learning Design programs:

Course Design Institute (CDI) – an on-campus in-person one week course where participants will learn about principles of course design and new pedagogical techniques. We will focus on the development and alignment of learning outcomes, course activities, and assessments. The topics discussed in the CDI can be applied to individual class sessions, course modules, and entire courses. We will offer the CDI in both summer session I and II in 2020. Stay tuned for dates and signup.

Engineering and Facilitating Learning Online (EFOL) – a paced, asynchronous course for faculty to experience online learning from the perspective of a learner as they work through initial course design. This five-week online course for faculty is intended to support the development of the highest-quality online courses. Completion of this course is required before building or teaching any online course at Mines. Click here to register for the Fall 2019 or Spring 2020 course and click here for more information. 

Please visit our What We Offer page for more learning opportunities.