June 18, 2006
June 18, 2006
June 21, 2006
Council of Sections
11.235.1 - 11.235.15
Assessing Critical Thinking in Mechanics in Engineering Education
Abstract. Typically, mechanics education in engineering schools focuses on communicating explicit content to students, but de-emphasizes the critical thought that underlies the discipline of mechanics. We give examples of the failure of students to apply basic principles of mechanics in solving problems. We develop assessment tools that measure critical thinking in student work, and how well mechanics textbooks engage students in critical analysis. Both tools focus on the treatment of three criteria that we judge to be fundamental, but that are commonly overlooked or undervalued: completeness of free body diagrams, consideration of physical dimension, and careful use of vectors, coordinates and sign conventions. Data collected from employing our assessment tools indicates that most of the time, students omit or misunderstand at least one critical idea when solving a problem, even when they obtain a correct answer. We also found that most of the textbooks surveyed exhibit at least one significant shortcoming pertaining to our criteria. Mechanics educators should vigorously emphasize fundamental aspects of mechanics, such as those that we suggest here, as a necessary (though insufficient) step to improve the ability of students to think critically and solve problems independently.
Rooting Mechanics Education in Mechanics. Mechanics provides the educational foundation for nearly all branches of engineering, due to its dual role (1) to convey explicit content and subject matter (e.g. the behavior of mechanisms and structures), and (2) to develop analytical skills and rational thought (e.g. building equations, based on rational models, that describe physical phenomena). Our experience indicates that students and instructors in mechanics courses emphasize the explicit content, but often at the expense of developing analytical technique. This view echoes Schafersman, who, though not a mechanician, writes of the need to develop critical thinking in education:
Perhaps you can now see the problem. All education consists of transmitting to students two different things: (1) the subject matter or discipline content of the course ("what to think"), and (2) the correct way to understand and evaluate this subject matter ("how to think"). We do an excellent job of transmitting the content of our respective academic disciplines, but we often fail to teach students how to think effectively about this subject matter, that is, how to properly understand and evaluate it1.
While in the short run the narrower focus on content enables students to (sometimes) get answers to some problems fairly quickly, students often lack even a basic working knowledge of how to consistently apply principles of mechanics to approach general problems – even problems that require only technique that they have already learned. We proffer that such shortcomings often result from the failure to carefully address fundamentals of mechanics in mechanics pedagogy . Such fundamentals include the completeness of free body diagrams, the consideration of physical dimension, and the careful definition and use of coordinates and sign conventions.
Papadopoulos, C., & Rahman, A., & Bostwick, J. (2006, June), Assessing Critical Thinking In Mechanics In Engineering Education Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. https://peer.asee.org/1379
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