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Examining Interruptions in a Student's Solution-generating Process for Indicators of Conceptual Knowledge

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Concepts and Conceptual Knowledge

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.703.1 - 26.703.13



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Paper Authors


Christian Anderson Arbogast Oregon State University

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Christian Arbogast is a graduate student in the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering at Oregon State University. His academic and research interests include examining the change in conceptual understanding among undergraduate students in engineering programs and the mechanical design process.

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Devlin Montfort Oregon State University


Shane A. Brown P.E. Oregon State University Orcid 16x16

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Shane Brown is an associate professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University. His research interests include conceptual change and situated cognition. He received the NSF CAREER award in 2010 and is working on a study to characterize practicing engineers’ understandings of core engineering concepts.

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Documenting Conceptual Understanding by Attending to StoppageEvaluating students’ and engineers’ conceptual understandings is a significant challenge inengineering education. Engineers are challenged not only to “understand” a situation or find asingular correct answer, but also to appropriately modulate the precision of their answers tomatch the problem requirements. “Over-designing” or “calculating something to death” areengineering-specific flaws in conceptual understanding. Conceptual change research inengineering education therefore must develop beyond evaluating the correctness of participants’understanding, which means we must therefore be able to evaluatively differentiate between thevarious processes and understandings that generate “correct” answers.In this paper we propose and elaborate on the idea of conceptual “stoppage.” A stoppage(although more rigorously defined in our research and paper) is simply any time when aparticipant is unable to continue a line of thought or chosen problem solution method. Ofparticular value would be investigation of how participants address stoppages: how do we valueestimation, for example, compared to appeal to first principles? In this way the construct ofstoppage can help engineering educators define what conceptual changes are desirable. Anadditional value of this construct is that it is a reliably identifiable event that can reasonably beassumed to relate to conceptual understanding phenomena. This construct allows us to createmeaningful simplifications of the oftentimes messy and voluminous data arising from conceptualinterviews.This paper draws on three years of longitudinal data on engineering students’ and practicingengineers’ conceptual understanding of solid and fluid mechanics. Each participant in our studyhas participated in five 90-minute interviews between 2011 and 2014. For one group ofparticipants this time covered their sophomore to senior years of undergraduate education. Forthe other half of the participants these were their first three years of engineering practice.Stoppages are relatively rare in our data, as might be expected from existing literature onstudents’ hesitance to metacognitively plan their problem-solving: one cannot be surprised by adead-end if one did not have a route planned. However, the observed stoppages provide valuableinsights into our participants’ conceptual change processes. For example, one diagram used inour prompts showed a section of pressurized pipe but did not give any dimensions. Manystudent-participants were not troubled by this lack of information and instead applied an equationthat frequently worked for similar problems. Many engineer-participants were similarlyuntroubled and made assumptions suitable to the range of dimensions common in their work. Asmall number of participants experienced a stoppage at this point however, reasoning that theycould not answer the question without knowing more about the actual size of the pipe section.Further investigation into the different arguments and reasons applied by participants who did ordid not experience a stoppage revealed important insights into key conceptual differences hiddenamong participants with similar answers to the overall problem.

Arbogast, C. A., & Montfort, D., & Brown, S. A. (2015, June), Examining Interruptions in a Student's Solution-generating Process for Indicators of Conceptual Knowledge Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24040

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