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Development of an Intervention to Improve Students' Conceptual Understanding of Thermodynamics

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session


Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.428.1 - 23.428.13

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Paper Authors


Stephen R. Turns Pennsylvania State University, University Park

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Stephen R. Turns, professor of mechanical engineering, joined the faculty of The Pennsylvania State University in 1979. His research interests include combustion-generated air pollution, other combustion-related topics, and engineering education pedagogy. He has served as an ABET mechanical engineering program evaluator since 1994. He has received many teaching awards at Penn State, including the Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching. Turns was the recipient of the 2009 ASEE Mechanical Engineering Division Ralph Coats Roe Award. He is also the author of three student-centered textbooks: An Introduction to Combustion: Concepts and Applications, 3rd ed. (McGraw-Hill, 2012), Thermal-Fluid Sciences: An Integrated Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2006), and Thermodynamics: Concepts and Applications (Cambridge University Press, 2006). He received degrees in mechanical engineering from Penn State (B.S. in 1970), Wayne State University (M.S. in 1975), and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Ph.D. in 1979).

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Peggy Noel Van Meter Pennsylvania State University

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Dr. Van Meter is a faculty member in the Educational Psychology program in Penn State's College of Education. She teaches courses on learning and problem solving. Her research areas include the study of how students learn and the design of educational interventions to support that learning.

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Thomas A. Litzinger Pennsylvania State University, University Park


Carla M Firetto The Pennsylvania State University

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Carla Firetto is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Psychology at Penn State. She is interested in applying principles of educational research to develop interventions that facilitate undergraduate students’ learning, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. She can be contacted at

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Development of an Intervention to Improve Students’ Conceptual Understanding of ThermodynamicsThere is a clear need to improve students’ conceptual understanding and problem solvingabilities in thermodynamics.1, 2 In previous work, we outlined several ways that knowledge fromcognitive science could be applied to improve thermodynamics learning. The present paperdescribes an intervention that we derived from our previous work, and presents the results from apilot test of that intervention. The intervention comprises an exercise that students complete andan accompanying instructor-created video that explains how to complete the exercise. Theexercise we developed has its roots in the concept of matrix notes3, 4 because we believe thestructure of this learning strategy is well matched to the demands of thermodynamics learning.First, this structure provides an organizational framework that allows a learner to see ideas inrelation to one another; specifically, information is organized in rows and columns. In ourintervention, students consider three ideal-gas processes arranged in three rows: (i) a constant-pressure expansion, (ii) a constant-volume process in which the pressure increases, and (iii) aconstant-temperature expansion. Prompts written in the columns required students to (i) write amathematical expression of the relation of pressure to volume, (ii) write a mathematicalexpression of the relation of temperature to volume, (iii) create a plot of pressure versus volume,(iv) create a plot of temperature versus volume, and (v) to develop an expression for movingboundary work. Second, because the information that the students must supply include verbalstatements, diagrammatic depictions, and mathematical expressions, the specific format of theexercise supports the representational transformations required for thermodynamics problemsolving.5 The student is able to see, for example, how a pressure-volume plot relates to itsmathematical expression by looking across the rows of the table.We conducted a pilot test of the intervention with two sections of an introductory engineeringthermodynamics course. One section of students completed the intervention after the firstexamination and immediately before a quiz. The second section served as a business-as-usualcontrol. Scores on the first examination served as the index of prior knowledge, and quiz scoreswere the dependent variable. We anticipated that the intervention may have different effects forstudents at different levels of prior knowledge and, thus, we tested the effects of the interventionin a 2 (intervention, no intervention) by 3 (prior knowledge: low, medium, high) ANOVA. Thesignificant main effects of both prior knowledge, F(2, 95) = 14.83, p < 0.001, and theintervention were significant, F(1, 95) = 3.72, p < 0.057. The interaction between the twoindependent variables was not significant.These findings demonstrate that the intervention had a positive impact on students’ quizperformance, but two aspects of the results raise concerns. First, the significant effect of theintervention is only marginal and the effect size is rather small (partial 2 = 0.04). Second,inspection of the mean scores across prior knowledge levels show that the intervention had nobenefit for low knowledge students. We conducted think-aloud studies with thermodynamicsstudents as they completed the exercise to better understand how students were using the row-column structure. These think alouds revealed that students tended to approach the exercise in apiecemeal fashion. Although students used the organizational structure of the exercise, theytypically did not elaborate the relations across cells or monitor their understanding of theserelations. From these studies, we concluded that enhancements to the exercise were necessary,with these enhancements designed to stimulate not only the learning processes of organization,but also elaboration and metacognitive monitoring.REFERENCES1. Olds, B.M., Streveler, R.A., Miller, R.L., & Nelson, M.A., Preliminary results from the development of a concept inventory in thermal and transport science, Proceedings 2004 ASEE Conference.2. Meltzer, D., AC 2008-1505: Investigating and addressing learning difficulties in thermodynamics, Proceedings 2008 ASEE Annual Conference.3. Kiewra, K. A., Benton, S. L., Kim, S., Risch, N., and Christensen, M. (1995). Effects of notetaking format and study technique on recall and relational performance. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 20, 172–187.4. Kiewra, K. A., Dubois, N. F., Christian, D., McShane, A., Meyerhoffer, M., and Roskelley, D. (1991). Note-taking functions and techniques. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 240–245.5. McCracken, W.M. & Newstetter, W.C. (2001). Text to diagram to symbol: Representational transformations in problem-solving. Proceedings of the 31st ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Reno, NV, pp. F2G-13 – F2G-17. 

Turns, S. R., & Van Meter, P. N., & Litzinger, T. A., & Firetto, C. M. (2013, June), Development of an Intervention to Improve Students' Conceptual Understanding of Thermodynamics Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia.

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