Using workplace thriving theory to investigate first-year engineering students' abilities to thrive during the transition to online learning due to COVID-19

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Journal of Engineering Education



During the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, universities rapidly pivoted to online formats and were often unable to adhere to the best practices of online learning highlighted in prior literature. It is well documented that a variety of barriers impeded “normal” educational practices.


The purpose of this paper is to investigate the perceptions of first-year engineering students enrolled in an introductory engineering design course during the rapid transition to online working environments. We view students' perceptions through the theoretical lens of workplace thriving theory, a framework that allowed us to capture aspects of education required for students to thrive in non-optimum learning settings.


This research employed semi-structured interview methods with 13 students enrolled in an introductory engineering design course that relies on project-based team learning. We analyzed interview transcripts using thematic analysis through an abductive approach and made interpretations through workplace thriving theory.


Results indicated that students' abilities to thrive are related to four intersecting themes that demonstrate how workplace thriving theory manifests in this unanticipated online setting. These themes demonstrate elements that must be optimized for students to thrive in settings such as this: relationships with others, building and sharing knowledge through interactions, perceptions of experiential learning, and individual behaviors.


Our research, viewed through workplace thriving theory, highlights the mechanisms by which students tried to succeed in suboptimal environments. While not all our participants showed evidence of thriving, the factors required for thriving point to opportunities to harness these same factors in in-person instruction environments.


DOI: 10.1002/jee.20447


© 2022 American Society for Engineering Education.