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Continuity of Instruction, Cognitive Load, and the Middle Years Slump

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

How We Tackled the Pandemic

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

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Mary Katherine Watson The Citadel Orcid 16x16

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Mary Katherine Watson is currently an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at The Citadel. She holds BS and MS degrees in Biosystems Engineering from Clemson University and a PhD in Environmental Engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology. She enjoys, and has invested significantly, in the development of her undergraduate students, serving as past faculty advisor for numerous student groups. Dr. Watson is passionate about improving access to engineering education and serves as the faculty director for a scholarship program to recruit and support high-performing, low-income civil engineering students. Dr. Watson is also interested in understanding and assessing students’ cognitive processes, especially development of cognitive flexibility and interactions with cognitive load. Dr. Watson is the proud recipient of seven teaching awards and six best paper awards. She was previously named the Young Civil Engineer of the Year by the South Carolina Section of ASCE and currently serves as a Senior Associate Editor for the Journal of Civil Engineering Education.

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Elise Barrella P.E. Wake Forest University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Elise Barrella is the founder and CEO of DfX Consulting LLC which offers engineering education and design research, planning and consulting services. She is a registered Professional Engineer and was a Founding Faculty member of the Department of Engineering at Wake Forest University. She is passionate about curriculum development, scholarship and student mentoring on transportation systems, sustainability, and engineering design. Dr. Barrella completed her Ph.D. in Civil Engineering at Georgia Tech where she conducted research in transportation and sustainability as part of the Infrastructure Research Group (IRG). In addition to the Ph.D. in Civil Engineering, Dr. Barrella holds a Master of City and Regional Planning (Transportation) from Georgia Institute of Technology and a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Bucknell University. Dr. Barrella has investigated best practices in engineering education since 2003 (at Bucknell University) and began collaborating on sustainable engineering design research while at Georgia Tech. Prior to joining the WFU faculty, she led the junior capstone design sequence at James Madison University, was the inaugural director of the NAE Grand Challenges Program at JMU, and developed first-year coursework and interdisciplinary electives.

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Kevin Skenes The Citadel

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Kevin Skenes is an associate professor at The Citadel. His research interests include non-destructive evaluation, photoelasticity, manufacturing processes, and engineering education.

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Aidan Puzzio The Citadel

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Benjamin Lawrence Kicklighter The Citadel

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Similar to other institutions of higher education, XXX shifted exclusively to an online modality during the Spring 2020 semester to provide continuity of instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, all engineering programs were administered solely through face-to-face instruction; thus, the mandatory transformation to online instruction represented a unique opportunity to explore the impacts of unprecedented disruption on student learning and development. We sought to examine student experiences with changing modality through the lens of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), which characterizes learning as assimilation of knowledge into one’s long-term memory. However, it is our short-term (working) memory that first processes information. If the cognitive load (or mental effort) associated with a task exceeds short-term processing capacity, then learning cannot occur. As engineering curricula are interconnected networks of classes that build on prior prerequisites, cognitive overload during continuity of instruction could have lasting impacts on student competencies. Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we conducted a study to track changes in perceived workload among students as a result of the rapid shift to online continuity of instruction. At the midterm of the Spring 2020 semester, students from mechanical, civil, and construction engineering reflected on workload experienced during their prior face-to-face engineering courses. At the end of the semester, students reflected on the workload experienced during their online engineering courses. At each survey administration, students used the NASA Task Load Index (TLX) to rate their workload on a 0-100 scale along six dimensions: mental, physical, temporal, effort, frustration, and performance. We used a mixed Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) to compare changes in workload dimensions between modalities for several demographic groups. In this paper, we will report on our findings for middle years students. Regardless of modality, middle years students reported greater workload along temporal, effort, and frustration dimensions than did freshmen and seniors. Our preliminary findings of higher perceived temporal demand, required effort, and frustration align with other researchers who have identified a “middle years slump” among many engineering students. Furthermore, we found that middle years students experienced the greatest increase in mental demand during the shift from face-to-face to online instruction. Mental demand may be indicative of cognitive load, and cognitive overload is known to hinder learning. Cognitive overload during the formative middle years when students are completing foundational engineering science courses could have lasting impacts on performance in subsequent design courses.

Watson, M. K., & Barrella, E., & Skenes, K., & Puzzio, A., & Kicklighter, B. L. (2021, July), Continuity of Instruction, Cognitive Load, and the Middle Years Slump Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36845

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