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Enhancing Conceptual Testing with Technical Writing

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

New Pedagogical Approaches in Chemical Engineering

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

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Paper Authors


Matthew Cooper North Carolina State University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Matthew Cooper is a Teaching Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at North Carolina State University where he teaches Material and Energy Balances, Unit Operations, Transport Phenomena and Mathematical / Computational Methods. He is the recipient of the 2014 NCSU Outstanding Teacher Award, 2014 ASEE Southeastern Section Outstanding New Teacher Award, and currently serves as the ASEE Chemical Engineering Division’s newsletter editor. Dr. Cooper’s research interests include effective teaching, conceptual and inductive learning, integrating writing and speaking into the curriculum and professional ethics.

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This work describes written “Concept Quizzes” which aim to improve students’ understanding of engineering concepts while also developing skills in written technical communication. The impetus for this work is the exciting work performed on concept-based instruction and testing, such as performed by the AIChE Concept Warehouse. Concept-based instruction and testing is important because conceptual learning is not well-served by traditional engineering coursework, which often places focus on working equations rather than actually understanding the material. Many engineering students also possess written communication skills below that expected by their anticipated positions in the workplace. The written Concept Quizzes described here aim to combine the qualities of conceptual multiple-choice questions as currently exist on the AIChE-CW with the benefits of assigning written coursework.

An example of a written Concept Quiz prompt is given here:

"Suppose you are at a summer family picnic drinking a large glass of iced tea; when you raise your glass from the table to take a drink, a ring of water is left on the table. Your 10-year-old cousin asks you, ‘why is your glass sweating?’ How would you explain the observed phenomena in simple terms for your young cousin?"

All written Concept Quiz questions involve straightforward prompts which require no calculations. The lion’s share of the assignment grade involves correctly answering “why?” There are two key challenges for students when they encounter these explanations:

1) Do I have the conceptual understanding required to answer the question? 2) Can I communicate this understanding to another person skilled in the art in a brief, cogent written statement?

Combining these two challenges allows students to be evaluated on their conceptual understanding while also developing communication skills. Even students who do not possess requisite conceptual understanding receive the benefits of writing opportunities.

This study presents sample quiz questions, student performance and comments indicating the effectiveness of written Concept Quizzes. The impact of diversity is also investigated in this study – for instance, English-as-a-second language (ESL) students may be challenged to understand question prompts as well as explain complex technical phenomena in written English.

Results of this study demonstrate that:

• There was a strong correlation between students’ technical understanding and written clarity of their responses. When students understood technical concepts, their writing was clear; conversely, when students had technical misconceptions they found it difficult to articulate their explanation. • Students often identified mistakes in their answers while trying to explain themselves, seeming to represent learning at the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. • On average ESL students scored lower in both technical understanding and writing quality categories than domestic students, likely due to translation challenges. • In some cases written clarity of ESL student responses improved throughout the semester, ostensibly due to increased skill and comfort explaining their technical understanding in written English.

Cooper, M. (2016, June), Enhancing Conceptual Testing with Technical Writing Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26693

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