Engineering Education Research: what place for qualitative methodological orientation in Portuguese doctoral theses?

  • Marina Duarte
  • Carlinda Leite
  • Preciosa Fernandes


Engineering Education Research (EER) is an independent field of research that has emerged in recent years, although its tradition goes back over a hundred years (Borrego & Bernhard, 2011). More recently, Malmi (2018) characterised EER as having its focus on student learning in engineering sciences, innovations in engineering education and its impact on students’ learning. Although most scholars who identify with EER “have been formally trained as engineers” and are “engineering academics” (Borrego & Bernhard, 2011, p.23), this is “an interdisciplinary area of study which draws upon a wide range of more traditional fields” (ibidem, p.24), like engineering, education, and psychology. According to Borrego, Douglas and Amelink (2009), the strong engineering background of its researchers explains the trend identified a decade ago, towards the resort to quantitative methods. Since then, although the use of qualitative methods has increased (Shekhar et al., 2019), the procedures for quantitative and qualitative data analyses seem to be underdeveloped, lacking sophistication and complexity (Malmi, et. al, 2018), which “underlines the necessity to improve the quality of how research in EER is performed and raise the methodological awareness among researchers” (Bernhard, 2018, p.169).

In Portugal, Hattum Janssen et al. (2015) found evidence of positive evolution in EER, despite the still modest structural and financial support. Portuguese publication in scientific journals and involvement in the development of EER have increased and, despite no masters’ or doctoral courses in the specific area of EER are offered, the authors reported the existence of doctoral theses. If, on the one hand, due to the scope of study areas/fields of EER and the broadness of its aims, it would be expected some diversity of research methodologies, namely those of qualitative orientation, on the other hand, the still modest presence of EER in Portugal, may negatively influence these expectations. Having this argument by reference, the aim of this paper is to analyse Portuguese EER on doctoral theses, identifying its methodological orientations, regarding its diversity and use of qualitative approaches, and by doing so, contribute to deepening the debate on this issue.