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Electromagnetics Misconceptions: How Common Are These Amongst First- and Second-year Electrical Engineering Students?

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Electrical and Computer Poster Session

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.510.1 - 25.510.13



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Paper Authors


Chris Smaill University of Auckland

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Chris Smaill holds a Ph.D. in engineering education from Curtin University of Technology, Australia, and degrees in physics, mathematics, and philosophy from the University of Auckland. For 27 years, he taught physics and mathematics at high school level, most recently as Head of physics at Rangitoto College, New Zealand's largest secondary school. This period also saw him setting and marking national examinations, and training high-school teachers. He has a successful, established and ongoing publication record where high-school physics texts are concerned, covering more than 20 years. Since the start of 2002, he has lectured in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Auckland. The scholarship of teaching and learning provides his research interests, in particular: the conceptual understanding of students, the high-school to university interface, computer-assisted learning, and computer-based assessment.

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Gerard Rowe University of Auckland

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Gerard Rowe completed the degrees of B.E., M.E., and Ph.D. (in electrical and electronic engineering) at the University of Auckland in 1978, 1980, and 1984, respectively. He joined the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Auckland in 1984, where he is currently a Senior Lecturer, and serves as Associate Dean (teaching and learning) within the Faculty of Engineering. He is a member of the Department’s Radio Systems Group and his (disciplinary) research interests lie in the areas of radio systems, electromagnetics and bioelectromagnetics. Over the last 28 years, he has taught at all levels and has developed a particular interest in identifying and correcting student conceptual misunderstandings and in curriculum and course design. He has received numerous teaching awards from his institution. In 2004, he was awarded a (National) Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award in the Sustained Excellence in Teaching category, and in 2005, he received the Australasian Association for Engineering Education award for excellence in Engineering Education in the Teaching and Learning category. Rowe is a member of the IET, the IEEE, the Institution of Professional Engineers of New Zealand (IPENZ), ASEE, STLHE, and AAEE.

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Electromagnetics misconceptions: how common are these amongst first- and second-year electrical-engineering students?Each year, the University of XXX (UoX), a large research-led university of around 40 000students, accepts about 600 students into the first year of its four-year Bachelor of Engineeringdegree. These students increasingly come from a diverse range of national and internationalbackgrounds. Compounding this diversity, national students now have a choice of three distinctpathways to university. Further, the modular nature of the most common of these pathwaysmakes it possible for students to study only some aspects of the physics curriculum and ignoreothers, such as the electrical systems module. Given the above, it can no longer be assumed thatfirst-year students have a shared base level of knowledge.For a course to be effective, the instructors require a good insight into the skills andunderstanding of their students. However, in the past, diagnostic tools such as the Force ConceptInventory have revealed student misunderstandings that were far more extensive and prevalentthan instructors believed. Today, the increased academic diversity of the incoming student bodymeans that instructors, without the help of suitable diagnostic tools, are even less likely to havean accurate grasp of the skills and understanding of incoming students.Pre-tests have been administered at the start of two courses, ELECTENG 101 since 2007 andELECTENG 204 since 2011, to provide instructors with factual information about incomingstudents’ skills and understanding. ELECTENG 101, Electrical and Digital Systems, is acompulsory course taken by all 600 first-year engineering students at UoX. ELECTENG 204,Engineering Electromagnetics, is part of a compulsory common program for all 150 year-twoelectrical-and-electronic and computer-systems engineering students. The ELECTENG 101 pre-test aimed to determine incoming students’ levels of conceptual understanding of electricalcircuits and electromagnetics, and consequently to modify where necessary the course content,delivery, and remedial interventions so as to provide the best learning opportunities for allstudents. The ELECTENG 204 pre-test was similarly motivated, but focussed just onelectromagnetics. The findings concerning electrical circuits have been previously reported: thispaper therefore presents an analysis of the findings related to students’ levels of conceptualunderstanding of electromagnetics.The pre-tests revealed several commonly-held key misconceptions. A survey of the literaturesuggested that, while comparatively little research has been done into electromagneticsmisconceptions, these are prevalent internationally. A number of related commonmisconceptions involve forces: Newton’s third law in an electromagnetics context, the forceexperienced by a stationary charge in a magnetic field, the direction of the force experienced bya moving charge in a magnetic field, and the trajectory followed by a moving charge in amagnetic field. There are also common misconceptions centred on equating electric fields withmagnetic fields, confusing direction of cause with direction of effect, and relating inducedvoltage to magnetic flux rather than change in flux. All the evidence is that these misconceptionsare common amongst students. Therefore it is important that instructors are aware of them whileconstructing and delivering courses. The hope is that this paper will go some way to increasinginstructor awareness.

Smaill, C., & Rowe, G. (2012, June), Electromagnetics Misconceptions: How Common Are These Amongst First- and Second-year Electrical Engineering Students? Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21268

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