Lessons learned in teaching engineering surveying in colleges and universities


Saffron Grant is Director and Lead Trainer for Setting Out For Construction. She is an experienced Civil Engineer with 19 years working in the construction industry. For the last 10 years she has been providing training and consultancy to colleges, universities, construction companies, local authorities, sector skills councils and social enterprises. Saffron writes about the challenges in delivering the engineering surveying module.


The topic of whether colleges and universities prepare students well enough for a career in construction tends to be an ongoing discussion within the industry. It is important that all stakeholders acknowledge their part in ensuring college and university graduates reach their full potential in the first few months and years of their career.


There is a misconception among some employers that the rapid advances in digital technology mean that setting out and surveying have become easier and require less skill. In fact, it is more important than ever that engineers have a solid grasp of the fundamental principles and are able to apply them.


This article highlights the challenges faced by educators in delivering the engineering surveying module, which I believe is one of the most influential in any civil engineering or construction course when it comes to the employability and confidence of students. Colleges and universities play their part in delivering qualifications, however employers must recognise they have an important role to play in providing work experience opportunities, supporting young people, giving them access to role models and providing the necessary mentoring and training once a young person has started work.


Over the last ten years, I have worked with a number of colleges and universities to help them improve the standard of delivery of their engineering surveying module and I will share some of what I have learnt in this article.


Why is the surveying module important to the student?

Engineering surveying is different from most other modules in that it puts the students’ practical ability under scrutiny. Their experience of this module has the power to elevate or shatter an individual’s confidence, and this can transfer to all other areas of their studies and into their future career. The module puts all their other learning into context by bringing together maths, drawings, spatial reasoning, CAD and understanding of the construction process, as well as encouraging the student to think about the commercial and risk elements of accuracies, tolerances and information transfer. It can be a great builder of teamwork skills, personal resilience, and the ability to solve problems and work under pressure.

If delivered well, the engineering surveying module pulls together all their other learning and inspires the student. If delivered poorly, however, it can frustrate, demoralise and even humiliate the student. Their experience of this module can affect the jobs the student feels confident to apply for and could put people off choosing a site-based career and prompt them to opt for an office-based job instead. It can also impact on their performance at job interviews as well as their confidence, not just when they start work, but for the rest of their career.


What is the impact on employers?

The quality of delivery of the module impacts employers in several ways. The higher the standard of the candidate’s practical skills, the shorter the time until they become a contributing member of the site team and therefore start to add value to the employer. Where the college or university graduate is confident in this area, they will need the minimum of supervision and mentoring to adopt good practice and work independently. This saved the employer additional training costs, intensive supervision costs and costs of delays, rework and wastage associated with setting out errors. Surveying and setting-out ability are a useful indicator to employers of the quality of the college which the student has come from and can help to inform their future recruitment decisions.


What are the challenges in delivering the engineering surveying module?

The challenges in delivering this module are much greater than most other HNC, HND and degree modules. They fall into two categories; practicalities and the challenges faced by lecturers.


The practicalities

First, a large outdoor space is needed. Where the space is not situated adjacent to the classroom, it forces lecturers to teach large volumes of theory and large volumes of practical sessions in separate chunks. The theory and the corresponding practical may be weeks apart leading students to feel frustrated if they can’t remember the details. Then there are the practicalities of owning, hiring, storing, maintaining, insuring the right equipment and ensuring it is available and in working order in the right place and at the right time.


Timetabling the module can be complex. If blocks of time can be allocated to the module for example half-day, full-day or full-week blocks it leads to a better learning experience for the student and more efficient use of the time available. However, this can have a knock-on effect on other modules.


Student absence can also cause practical problems. If a student misses a practical assessment, it need to be arranged at another time, impacting on the lecturer and possibly other students.


The availability of part-time students can pose a challenge. For those on day release it may impact in their employer if they are required to take additional days away from the workplace to attend practical sessions. For those taking evening classes, practical sessions need to be condensed into short sessions. The timetabling of this module needs to account for dark evenings.


The lecturers

The typical modern-day lecturer is under a great deal of pressure and often must deal with conflicting priorities, internal policies and other consuming factors such as pay and conditions. Many often work at more than 100% capacity, even when they are not requires to prepare and deliver a new module. In addition, they need to contend with the fact that the surveying module is much more expensive than others to deliver.

One of the biggest influencing factors on the quality of the delivery of the module is the competence and experience of the lecturer. Key competencies include confidence in the subject, practical ability, industry experience, patience, exceptional powers of explanation and the ability to teach a large class, whilst meeting the needs of individual students.


In some cases, lecturers of other subjects are put in a position where they are required to deliver the module even though in order to do so, they need to learn the subject from scratch and have never had any industry experience of the subject. Unlike some theoretical subjects, engineering surveying is not something you can learn fully from a book. This means that lecturers in this position are unlikely to be able to effectively help students who are struggling and may not pick up on bad practice and correct it. Lack of industry experience also means that lecturers may not frame the subject in the context of the workplace. They may give examples of the most common errors and the potential associated costs, or highlight other factors such as damage to the engineer’s reputation or damage to the company’s reputation when an error is made.


Lecturers may need to work with students who lack foundation skills, such as problem-solving, sketching, visualising, spatial reasoning and the relevant maths. Students may also lack personal resilience (not liking being outdoors in the cold or rain!) or the ability to work under pressure or work as a team.


Other challenges that lecturers may face when taking over the delivery of the module are the lack of good quality teaching resources such as drawings and data files, a poor handover from the previous lecturer, infrequent opportunities to practice with the equipment or the lack of training on the equipment.


Common factors which prevent optimal results

There are some common things which make the delivery of the module more challenging and impact negatively on the student’s experience.

  • Placing the module at the very start of the course. In the first few months of a course students have either just completed high school or sixth form college and in many cases have just left home and have not yet settled into their new life. They may not yet have developed the confidence needed to embrace practical subjects and may not be in the optimum learning state for this subject. In addition, the disengaged and disruptive students who are likely to drop out later down the line are still in the class. This prevents all other students getting the best experience.

  • Placing the module at the wrong point in the curriculum. If the module is one of the first subjects taught, students have not yet worked with drawings and they do not have any concept of how things are constructed, so setting out is an abstract concept to them. They are not familiar with terminology such as formation, shuttering or batter, so they can feel demoralised and frustrated. They do not have the necessary hooks on which to hang the learning. In addition, precious time may be wasted refreshing the student’s maths, whereas if the module is taught later in the curriculum, students will be more confidence.

  • Sessions are too short, for example two hours. This is not time-efficient as much of the lesson is spent setting up and packing away. This does not allow the students to become submerged in the learning and get their teeth into it.

  • Using outdated equipment. Although there is no doubt that the fundamental principles can be taught on the most basic equipment, there can be a psychological disadvantages for the students. It misses a golden opportunity to inspire students and provide confidence that they have been trained on up-to-date equipment.

  • Not having enough equipment. There should be no more than tow students per piece of equipment. The module should be designed so that each student must complete each exercise individually rather than obtaining a shared set of results per pair or group. Many institutions feel they must purchase equipment, however it can be much more cost-effective to condense the practical sessions into a few weeks and hire equipment.

  • The module requirement are out-of-date or inadequate. Many engineering surveying modules still include exercises such as the rise-and-fall method of levelling and do not have any requirement to give students an understanding of the latest technology such as scanners, 3D immersive photography or unmanned aerial systems.


It is worth investing in the best possible delivery of the engineering surveying module as it can reflect on your institution once your students are in industry. The rapid pace of change in technology means that this module needs frequent review. Educational institutions should frequently engage with employers to ensure they are meeting their needs.


The major suppliers such as Leica, Topcon and Trimble are often able to offer hands-on support for lecturers, such as demonstration sessions, so that students can get access to the most up-to-date equipment and may be able to arrange reduced price hire or purchase costs of their equipment.


For more information, please visit the Setting out For Construction website.


This article was amended from Civil Engineering Surveyor (October 2020) Challenges in delivering the engineering surveying module.

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