June 22, 2008
June 22, 2008
June 25, 2008
13.226.1 - 13.226.18
Assessing Cognitive Reasoning and Learning in Mechanics
Mechanics is the discipline that anchors the engineer’s scientific reasoning. While mechanics is properly concerned with practical treatment of the behavior of structures and mechanisms – “what to think”, it is equally concerned with the methodology of problem formulation and solution – “how to think”. Not coincidentally, all accredited engineering programs require mechanics courses at entry to major. Because mechanics is so centrally situated in the engineer’s intellectual training, it lends itself to the study of engineers’ thinking, learning, and metacognition.
Perhaps because of these characteristics, a great deal of research has been conducted to assess student learning in mechanics and methods of teaching mechanics. Educators in physics and engineering have developed a clear understanding of misconceptions that conflict with student learning, and the concept inventory has emerged as a powerful tool to identify these misconceptions. I review several results of the literature on misconceptions and use of concept inventories. In the course of this review, I raise the issue of whether concept understanding is sufficient for problem-solving, and I suggest that procedural knowledge must also be emphasized in mechanics instruction.
I also review other methods of assessing student learning, such as student interviews and interactive reviews of student work. I also provide some information on studies that have attempted to evaluate textbooks. I frame the discussion on textbooks within the larger context of promoting problem-solving by the incorporation of systematic procedure and the fostering of sound problem-solving habits.
2. Misconceptions and Concept Inventories in Physics Education
Formal study of student knowledge and learning in mechanics is rooted in research conducted by physics educators since the early 1970s. In 1984, Lillian McDermott18 published what is perhaps the first review of these efforts. The over-riding themes that had emerged were that (1) students bring misconceptions to the classroom that contradict principles of Newtonian physics; (2) misconceptions are often resistant to change, and often persist after instruction; (3) students can obtain correct answers to problems (e.g., by plugging numbers into formulae) without understanding the underlying concepts; and (4) students have difficulty applying basic concepts to actual physical situations. Corresponding to these general themes were several specific types of misconceptions that were widely held by students:
Neglecting “passive” forces. Students often neglect forces that do not appear to be “active”, such as the normal force supplied by a tabletop to support a book that rests on the tabletop18. Such forces are termed “passive” in the physics education literature and roughly correspond to “reactions” in engineering.
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