Teaching Project Management: A Student Perspective
Centre for Learning Innovation and Professional Practice
Aston University, Aston Triangle, Birmingham, B4 7ET, UK
Employability is a key concern of most students as they embark on a course of university study. For
engineering students today a more diverse course of learning that brings together technical, managerial
and life skills is becoming increasingly common.
Previous work has explored the inclusion of project management in the engineering curriculum and
identified innovative yet practical approaches to the teaching of the subject . This study builds on
this earlier work by exploring the student view of project management and its study.
An on-line survey has been administered to two groups of students to ascertain their understanding of
project management, its alignment with their future careers and their perceptions of the learning and
teaching environment required for effective study.
With projects such a fundamental component of business today and with anecdotally around 25% of
Engineering Management masters students becoming project managers on graduation, a deeper
understanding of the role project management can play in the development of tomorrow’s engineers is
of significant value.
This study will be presented against the backdrop of a move towards a more project management
focused engineering teaching group structure and the establishment of a Centre for Project
Management Practice to promote business engagement and research.
Keywords: project management, student perspective, employability
Against a backdrop of global economic crisis, the need for qualified engineers is still apparent. The
challenges faced by our world related to sustainability demand talent that can demonstrate skills not
simply in technical disciplines but in the context of the wider business and social environment. The
term ‘multi-skilled’ engineer is starting to be voiced more openly, as governments and businesses
search for the workforce of the future.
This paper explores a part of this issue. Project management is often identified as a discipline that
‘multi-skilled’ engineers should be conversant with. The question posed here and investigated by way
of a small exploratory study is whether or not current university students view project management as
an important part of their education and future career.
2. PROJECT MANAGEMENT – A VIEW FROM THE LITERATURE
Previous work has identified the importance of, what are generally termed, transferable skills in the
education of engineers . This point was echoed at a recent meeting of the Parliamentary and
Scientific Committee in the House of Commons that explored the question ‘Do we need more multi-
skilled scientists and engineers to manage economic recovery and change?’  The consensus of the
meeting was yes, and the multi-skilled element received much support, although the concern of time in
the curriculum was highlighted.
In terms of project management, the literature is limited when it comes to exploring perceptions of
project management, whether by students or other potential stakeholders. A common view of project
management across an organisation is often not reality, neither is the notion that working to standards
ensures good project performance . This variability suggests that a broader view of project
management education is an important step to take.
Focusing on project success, influence has been identified as an important characteristic of the project
manager / team member relationship . By effectively employing influence, project success becomes
more likely. This argument is typical of many in the literature that suggest it is the so-called ‘softer’
skills that need emphasis in developing the project management skill base. Relying on the tried and
tested Iron Triangle of cost, quality and time, with the underlying techniques for planning and control
is no longer acceptable .
A survey of practice in project management reported in 2002 demonstrates the breadth of skills
required to deliver successful projects . It is the development of these characteristics in tertiary level
engineering students that is the aim of project management teaching. It is one thing to recognise this
need , what is not clear is how effective this work is, consequently study in this area would appear
The teaching of transferable skills is discussed widely in the literature. Although acknowledged as
important for an adaptable workforce, there is often an ‘incoherent approach’ to the development and
assessment of the skills . They are often perceived by students as ‘add-ons’ or ‘gap fillers’ and
consequently don’t receive the required level of student attention. On graduation though, research
suggests that students value transferable skills more highly, yet believe their ability is below that
needed . This can be viewed as a missed opportunity. The context of the transferable skills needs to
be clearly explained for student mastery to be achieved. An approach to achieving this is through group
work . A critical feature of the group work, along with a robust and aligned design, is the need to
provide feedback opportunities throughout the work such that the participants can capitalise on them
and improve their transferable skills.
As engineering faculty work towards more project and problem based curricula, the scope for
developing transferable skills, especially in areas such as project management , is greatly
increased. The problem provides the context and the justification, the faculty and the learning
environment the support. With these in place, there is a sound foundation on which to build.
3. EXPLORATORY STUDY – METHODOLOGY
In order to explore engineering student perceptions of project management as a subject and their
experiences of studying it, a short survey was administered to two cohorts of students. Each cohort had
taken a project management class in the academic year studied. One cohort was in their 2nd year of
study and the other was studying at Masters level.
The 2nd year students are embarking on their first course in the area of project management, as such the
material covered is introductory and will form a foundation for further study in the subsequent year.
Many of the Masters level students have studied project management before, consequently the course
has two objectives – consolidate the prior learning and develop a deeper understanding of the subject
and importantly its application in industry. In both cases, the courses are worth 10 credits and
constitute one twelth of the years work.
The survey was made available on-line and was designed to take no more than 15 minutes to complete.
No incentives were offered in order not to distort the response rate in any way. The students were
invited to participate by e-mail and one follow up e-mail was sent 10 days after the initial invitation.
The survey was conducted 10 weeks after the students had completed their study of project
management. The total population numbered 150 students – 80 Second Year students and 70 Masters
The results discussed in this paper are the initial findings from the exploratory study. Further work is
planned to develop understanding in this area.
4. EXPLORATORY STUDY – RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
The survey was designed to explore three distinct areas:
- the students’ perceptions of the importance of project management to engineering
- the students’ views on the most important features of project management
- the students’ thoughts on their project management learning experience.
The response rate achieved was 20%. The interesting observation was that 70% of the respondents
were studying at Masters level, whereas only 30% were undergraduates. This raises the question as to
whether or not the subject is adequately contextualised at undergraduate level. Later results and
comments will confirm that students see a definite link between skills in project management and
employability, yet when this registers is unclear. This survey suggests that it may be towards the latter
stages of a course of engineering study. An argument can be made here that this is a lost opportunity as
it does not encourage practice to improve the skills in question.
This result, although valuable, biases the remainder of the data towards the Masters cohort. This
suggests that more study needs to be conducted into the undergraduate perspective in order to get a
4.1 Importance of Project Management to Engineering
87% of the respondents indicated that they felt project management would be important or very
important to their future career, 77% believing they would be engaged directly in project management
when entering employment. When asked why, two responses, typical of the majority, were:
“We cannot have development without projects. Most projects consume huge resources, hence proper
management methods are required to effectively manage the potential for failure which could be very
“Every individual will need a knowledge of project management at different stages of their career”.
The importance of engineers being skilled in project management was seen as very high with 90%
considering it as important or very important. On a positive pedagogic note, 80% of the students agreed
or strongly agreed that they had a good understanding of project management. The reasons for this,
when given, were a well structured course and effective assignments. As a future career consideration,
57% believed this may be a real possibility, seeing it as a path to working with a wide range of people
and to “reaching great heights”. 45% stated that they were considering taking an external qualification
in project management after university in order to help them develop their career further.
With a significant number of students considering a career in project management, it would be hoped
that there be some awareness of key project management organisations / qualifying bodies. Aston
University established a Centre for Project Management Practice in 2007 as a way to bring together
academics and industry in the study and development of project management skills and knowledge.
Only 17% of the respondents had any awareness of the Centre clearly indicating the need to promote
the Centre more vigorously to students as a way for them to become more involved.
The university is an educational member of the Association for Project Management (APM) yet only
24% of the students claimed to be aware of APM as a professional body. The US based Project
Management Institute (PMI) was known to 38% of the students. Part of the reason for this may be that
the Masters cohort has a significant proportion of overseas students and PMI has a wider global reach
When UK Government IT projects started to encounter problems, the UK Office of Government
Commerce was charged with developing a robust project management methodology to help ensure
future project success. This methodology has matured over the years and has now become a standard in
many industries both in the UK and across the globe. Called PRINCE2, it was known to almost half of
the students (45%) and is often considered by students as the methodology to become qualified in after
4.2 Important Features of Project Management
With the importance of project management within engineering seen as high by the majority of the
respondents, the survey asked students to rank, in order of importance, 10 key features of the project
management discipline. The results are presented in Table 1.
The results indicate a strong awareness of the importance of the ‘softer’ skills with 3 of the top 4
rankings featuring ‘people focused’ attributes rather than the more ‘mechanistic’ side of project
management. Although there is strictly no correct order, it was also encouraging to see the front end
features that provide the foundation for successful project execution, namely planning and budget
preparation, ranked 2 and 4 respectively. The reflective task of learning from previous projects was
considered the least important. In reality, this is perhaps one of the most overlooked features of good
project management practice as it can promote a learning culture throughout
an organisation, helping to keep the organisation aware and effective.
Ranking Feature of Project Management
4 Budget Preparation
5 Project Control
6 Risk Management
6 Developing an Agreed Specification
7 Strategic Alignment
8 Learning from Previous Projects
TABLE 1. Ranking of Project Management Features
As may be expected in the light of the previous discussion, the key skills the students felt they had
developed included leadership, communication and teamwork along with being able to plan, control
and assess risk in projects. This blend provides a sound grounding that has the potential to be effective
in a job in industry.
The skills identified as still being needed were generally related to finance, leadership and getting more
practical experience. More understanding about the routes to accreditation reinforced the interest
expressed in project management as a potential career. An interesting observation was that several of
the comments made were self-reflective indicating that students were thinking about their own personal
4.3 Project Management Learning Experience
Addressing the issue of transferable skills, 69% of the respondents agreed that studying project
management helped the development of these skills. Communication, group work and leadership skills
were all identified under this heading. A problem-based learning assignment was identified by many as
one of the most valuable experiences in the project management class. Students liked that it attempted
to provide a realistic scenario in which they could use their new found knowledge and develop the
appropriate skills to match. Two student comments captured the general feeling:
“We put the theory and practice together – the group work was REAL project management practice”
“There were people in the group where I could help them as well as they could help me”.
When looking at the least valuable features of the project management teaching and learning, the
consensus was generally that the course was hard work and that there were too many assignments. This
is a common complaint, yet assignments are necessary to achieve competence. It certainly gives the
teaching staff something to think about, although students often reflect that the hard work was worth it
when they reach graduation. The group work mentioned so favourably earlier, can also be a source of
trouble. Group work was identified as one of the least valuable features as group tensions resulted in
what students perceived to be ‘a poorer quality learning experience’. This issue is always a challenge,
particularly when the students are so culturally diverse. The dysfunctional nature of some groups
suggests that students need some form of induction that will help them relate group work to
transferable skill development at an earlier stage.
When asked what could have supported the students study more effectively, the primary suggestion
was greater use of, and reference to, case studies and real project stories. This is an area that needs to
be addressed globally as there is currently no real database of project management case studies that is
easily accessible to both staff and students. A resource of this nature could be very valuable. Courses in
project management software were also identified, but they should be considered as separate
workshops outside the core curriculum.
5. CONCLUSIONS AND FURTHER WORK
This paper describes an exploratory study looking at project management as a subject of study on
engineering degree programmes from the student perspective. The results suggest that amongst the
students responding, the view of project management is generally positive. It is seen as important to
engineering and a way in which to develop transferable skills.
The bias in the respondents in favour of Masters level students may be an indication that this realisation
tends to occur later in a course of engineering study, when jobs are more imminent. The study needs to
be extended to explore other cohorts of students in order to try and identify when project management
starts to be seen as ‘useful’. If the positive view can be achieved earlier, students may then be
encouraged to develop their skills across a wider part of the curriculum whenever group or project
work is encountered.
The opportunity to develop project management expertise needs to be supported through quality
teaching that is innovative and at least partly problem-based. Group work induction needs
consideration to ensure students work together effectively and a database of project management case
studies would become a helpful resource, building on the desire for real world connections. A student
comment that best suggests the reality of the world today is:
“No industry or business will reach the top without project management”.
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