How the FE Exam Can Improve Engineering Education

How the FE Exam Can Improve Engineering Education

BY Craig N. Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE Posted: 10 Feb 2017

The Fundamentals of Engineering exam, administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, is widely used for two basic, equally important, yet independent purposes. First, it is one of two examinations, along with the Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam, that is required for obtaining a PE license. Also, it has become extensively used by university engineering programs as an outcomes assessment tool because it is an effective way to identify needed programmatic improvements. This process helps satisfy the outcomes assessment requirements established by the ABET accreditation process.

There is a great deal of information available from NCEES and NSPE on the FE exam, its topic areas, and how to use NCEES’s institution reports for outcomes assessment. NCEES has made available on its website an excellent 24-page document, “Using the FE exam As an Outcomes Assessment Tool.” This document describes the exam, the reporting format, and the basis of the statistics provided. NSPE’s Professional Engineers in Higher Education interest group has published a report summarizing how eight engineering programs of various disciplines at different universities use the FE exam for outcomes assessment. Each program uses the results in a somewhat different way, tailored to its specific program needs, student outcomes, and overall assessment objectives.

The FE exam is used most commonly for outcomes assessment by engineering programs in disciplines where most graduates eventually become PEs, including civil and environmental engineering. These students are encouraged or required to take the FE exam in preparation for licensure. In turn, these programs commonly use the results as one assessment method for validating attainment of desired student outcomes and identifying needed program changes.

The use of the FE exam for outcomes assessment is less common in other disciplines—particularly with those programs whose graduates are less likely to become licensed, such as electrical engineering. The FE exam is equally useful for outcomes assessment in these disciplines but is used less often, perhaps because fewer students take the exam and some faculty may feel it is only a licensure exam. However, if faculty members thought of the FE exam as an assessment tool, they would likely encourage students to take it on the grounds of benefit to the department. There is benefit to engineering programs in evaluating and using the FE exam data from a reasonably representative sample of program participants, with little if any downside.

NCEES’s institution report shows performance of the program’s exam takers in 18 different topic areas with statistical comparisons to national norms. 

Here are some suggestions and cautions regarding use of the FE exam for outcomes assessment:

  • Think of the FE exam as an outcomes assessment tool, not as a licensure exam.
  • Taking the exam does not have to be mandatory. However, the data is most representative of a program’s graduates if a representative sample of the program participants take the exam. Encouraging and incentivizing students to take the exam for the benefit of the program is recommended.
  • Use the data and statistical analyses properly. Don’t over-focus on short-term performance swings. Focus on longer-term indicators and trends of comparative strengths and weaknesses. Use results from multiple exam periods to establish trends.
  • When evaluating performance results in cases where taking the exam is optional, consider that the self-selected exam pool may consist of a high percentage of stronger students.
  • In evaluating topic area performance data, compare exam and instruction contents to assure that the exam is evaluating what is being taught. This is particularly true of technology program students, who may not have been exposed to some or most of the FE exam’s engineering science content.
  • Expectations of student performance in specific topic areas can be set by the faculty to represent the areas of strength within their individual department.
  • Use the information to consider and improve program content, instruction, and attainment of student outcomes.
  • The FE exam is created and formatted to assess a minimum level of technical competence. Assessing advanced performance in theory and practice will require additional assessment tools.

Engineering programs should be encouraged to use the FE exam data as an effective method for student outcomes assessment. Doing so provides a tool to support continuing program improvement and identify strengths and weaknesses in the instructional process. And FE data also represents a standardized, nationally normed basis for comparison and evaluation that is broadly accepted and widely respected in the educational and professional communities.

Use the FE exam for outcomes assessment. It works.

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Craig N. Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE, is a former member of the New Hampshire Board of Professional Engineers and has been actively involved in licensing issues. This article is adapted from one on NSPE’s PE Licensing Blog a publication of the National Society of Professional Engineers. It was peer reviewed by L. Robert Smith, P.E., F.NSPE; Jon D. Nelson, P.E.; David L. Whitman, Ph.D., P.E.; Dennis Truax, Ph.D., P.E.; and Davy McDowell, P.E.

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