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Confidence in Computational Problem-Solving Skills of First-Year Engineering Students

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

First-Year Programs Division Technical Session 5A: Work-In-Progress: 5 Minute Postcard Session I

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Mary Fraley Michigan Technological University

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Mary Fraley is a Lecturer in the Department of Engineering Fundamentals at Michigan Technological University. Her research interests include online/blended learning methods, first-year engineering courses and program development.

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Amber Kemppainen Michigan Technological University

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Ms. Kemppainen is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Engineering Fundamentals. Her research interests include the improvement of STEM education, ethics, and online/blended learning methods.

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Amy J. Hamlin Michigan Technological University

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AJ Hamlin is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Engineering Fundamentals at Michigan Technological University, where she teaches first-year engineering courses. Her research interests include engineering ethics, spatial visualization, and educational methods.

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Gretchen L. Hein Michigan Technological University

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Gretchen Hein is a senior lecturer in Engineering Fundamentals at Michigan Tech. She have been teaching ENG3200, Thermo-Fluids since 2005. She also teaches first-tear engineering classes. She has been active in incorporating innovative instructional methods into all course she teaches. Her research areas also include why students persist in STEM programs and underrepresented groups in engineering.

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This research paper describes student perceptions of their computational problem solving skills and compares them to their performance. Previous studies at _____ University have indicated that students inflate their perceived level of expertise using spreadsheets. This work further explores student confidence and competence on several computational problem solving skills. To determine this, a short pretest was given to students on the first day of their beginning First-Year Engineering course. This pretest included topics that are important for using computational tools to solve problems. There was one question on each of the following topics: 1) unit conversions in equations, 2) mathematical order of operations, 3) absolute and relative addressing in a spreadsheet, and 4) analyzing four lines of a generic sequential code. Following each question, students were asked to rate their confidence in their answer on a 5 point Likert scale (1 = completely confident to 5 = not at all confident).

Initial results (n=870) from the pretest are shown in Figure 1. For each question, responses were delineated by confidence level (Confident (1 or 2) and Not Confident (3, 4 or 5)) and correctness. Students were most confident and correct when evaluating units in equations and performing mathematical order of operations. Students were least confident in their ability to evaluate equations in spreadsheets, specifically using absolute and relative addressing, and slightly more confident in their ability to evaluate several lines of generic sequential code. Only a small percentage of students correctly answered these questions where they lacked confidence. While most students accurately assessed their confidence (high confidence and correct or low confidence and incorrect), it is important to note that in all questions there are a number of students that answered the questions correctly, but lacked confidence. These values range from 9.1% for Question 2 to 28.3% for Question 4. Additionally, there are a smaller number of students that were overconfident, that is they answered the question incorrectly, but reported confidence in their answer, ranging from 1.5% on Question 1 to 7.0% on Question 3.

The results from the pretest will be compared to similar questions (both skill and confidence questions) on the midterm and final exams. Additional post-test measures will include performance on two lab practical exams, one using spreadsheets, the other using MATLAB. To determine if there is a difference in performance or confidence between groups, responses will be compared by gender and concurrent math course group (Group 1: College Algebra and Pre-Calculus, Group 2: Calc1/1+, or Group 3: Calc II and higher).

This quick in-class pre-assessment can be used to customize the course for students in a given section when students can accurately assess their ability. We are currently in the process of restructuring our First-Year Engineering courses and using skill level instead of math placement may be a way to place students in engineering. In addition, by looking at our comparison groups (gender and math placement) we can determine what differences exist in skill level and confidence and if our current course structure is effective at increasing skill and confidence in these different groups of students. Question 1: Units in Equations Incorrect Correct Not Confident 3.9% 18.6% Confident 1.5% 73.2%

Question 2: Mathematical Order of Operations Incorrect Correct Not Confident 5.7% 9.1% Confident 6.4% 78.7%

Question 3: Spreadsheet Formulas Incorrect Correct Not Confident 79.4% 10.8% Confident 7.0% 2.8%

Question 4: Generic Sequential Code Incorrect Correct Not Confident 53.9% 28.3% Confident 6.1% 11.7%

Figure 1. First-Year Engineering pretest on computational problem solving skills and confidence. (Figures would not paste into this text box)

Fraley, M., & Kemppainen, A., & Hamlin, A. J., & Hein, G. L. (2016, June), Confidence in Computational Problem-Solving Skills of First-Year Engineering Students Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26563

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