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A Three Way Approach To Investigating Students’ Learning Styles In An Engineering Laboratory

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

Student Learning and Assessment

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.133.1 - 14.133.10

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Paper Authors

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Constantin Ciocanel Northern Arizona University

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Suzanne Pieper Northern Arizona University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

A Three-Way Approach to Investigating Student Learning Styles in an Engineering Laboratory Abstract

This paper presents the approach taken in the Experimental Methods in the Thermal Sciences Laboratory offered by the Mechanical Engineering Department from Northern Arizona University to investigate laboratory-specific student learning styles. To support this approach, the laboratory was reorganized to include three teaching modules: a subject-based learning (SBL) module, a problem-based learning (PBL) module, and a hybrid module incorporating aspects of both the SBL and PBL approaches. In addition, a web-based learning interface was developed and implemented to support two out of the three modules, the hybrid and the problem- based modules. The purpose of this interface was to expose the students to the theory associated with the experiment, the experimental procedure, and, for a selected number of experiments, to a video of the experiment. Providing different levels of support for the experiments, together with different visual material, allowed us to evaluate which channels of communication were most efficient in this context. An additional component of the new format of the laboratory consisted of more hands-on opportunities being created for the students. Accordingly, in the problem- based module, the students were required to design and build a setup that allowed them to investigate experimentally a theoretical problem of their choice (upon approval by the lab instructor). For these experiments, the students were required to develop the laboratory procedure and the experiment handout such that a third party would be able to perform the experiment without guidance. A set of measures was designed and implemented for each learning module. An assessment of student learning and development over time was performed using these measures. The results of assessment are presented and inferences on which learning style was preferred by the analyzed sample are made.


This paper presents a three-way approach taken in ME 495 - Experimental Methods in the Thermal Sciences Laboratory offered by the Mechanical Engineering Department of Northern Arizona University to investigate laboratory-specific student learning styles. This work was motivated by students’ feedback from previous semesters regarding their overall learning experience in the course and the general structure of the laboratory. Analysis of students’ feedback, corroborated with faculty colleagues’ experiences in similar courses, led to the conclusion that the subject-based learning approach was not preparing students to solve real-life problems and new/different methodologies must be implemented in this course. This conclusion is supported by current research studies.

The need for new methods in engineering education was emphasized in a recent article1. The integration of learning tools, learning activities, and learning evaluation of the course were counted as major components of effective teaching. The authors showed through case studies the effectiveness of new methods in improving the teaching in different engineering disciplines. They concluded that by a proper combination of the major components mentioned above one can improve students’ learning. Prior to this study, faculty in the College of Engineering at the Ohio State University redeveloped the freshman engineering classes into a combined course with

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