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Identification of Common Student Errors in Solving Fundamental Mechanics Problems

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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

Mechanics Concepts I

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

25.709.1 - 25.709.19



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Paper Authors


Shawn P. Gross Villanova University

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Shawn Gross is an Associate Professor of civil and environmental engineering at Villanova University, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in structural engineering and engineering mechanics.

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David W. Dinehart Villanova University

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Identification of Common Student Errors in Solving Fundamental Mechanics ProblemsSophomore-level mechanics courses, by nature, focus on developing students’ problem solvingabilities. Students are challenged with numerous typical problems in which they must interpretgiven information, determine what is required as an answer, set up a structured solutionmethodology, and execute that methodology without error. In these types of fundamentalproblems, there is always “one right answer”.Experience has shown that a large percentage of students do not obtain that correct answer whensolving a problem on a quiz or examination. In some cases, students are unable to set up aproblem correctly due to major conceptual issues. In other cases, students make morefundamental errors such as using a wrong moment arm, making sign errors in equilibriumequations, and using incorrect forces or areas. Finally, in many cases students demonstrate aclear understanding of concepts but fail to obtain the correct answer due to mistakes related tomathematics (algebra, trigonometry, etc.), general carelessness (calculator entry errors ortranscribing errors), or the use of proper units (conversion errors, weight/mass errors, failing tostate units, etc.).For the past five years faculty in an introductory mechanics course combining elements of staticsand mechanics of solids at __________ University, and in a previous course that covered staticsalone, have methodically collected data on the mistakes students make in solving these types ofproblems. For every quiz and exam problem, a detailed gradesheet (see Figure 1) was used thatidentifies every error made by every student. Over five years, this grading approach has beenused on over 150 assigned quiz and examination problems and errors have been identified onover 8000 student problem submissions.Using the data collected, this paper summarizes the errors students made in solving commonmechanics problems, including the topics of 2-D particle equilibrium, 3-D particle equilibrium,2-D rigid body equilibrium, truss analysis, centroids, moments of inertia, friction, equation ofmotion and kinematics, indeterminate analysis involving axial force members, simple boltedconnections, and factor of safety. Typical problems are presented and the grading and datacollection methodology is outlined in detail. The types of errors made by students are groupedfor discussion into those that are major conceptual, those that are minor conceptual, and thosethat are non-conceptual. Conclusions are drawn the potential for using the data to improveteaching and student learning are also discussed.Figure 1: Sample gradesheet for a single problem identifying all student errors

Gross, S. P., & Dinehart, D. W. (2012, June), Identification of Common Student Errors in Solving Fundamental Mechanics Problems Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21466

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