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Identification of Students’ Epistemological Frames in Engineering

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Methodological & Theoretical Contributions to Engineering Education 3

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.684.1 - 24.684.18



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Paper Authors


Christina Smith Oregon State University

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Christina Smith is a graduate student in the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University. She received her B.S. from the University of Utah in chemical engineering and is pursuing her PhD also in chemical engineering with an emphasis on engineering education. Her research interests include diffusion of innovations and student personal epistemology.

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Alec Bowen Oregon State University

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Alec Bowen is an undergraduate in Chemical Engineering at Oregon State University and expects to receive his B.S. in June 2014. His research focuses on engineering education, particularly in student personal epistemology and the development and utilization of educational simulations.

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Devlin Montfort Oregon State University

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Devlin Montfort is an Assistant Professor in the School of Chemical, Biological, Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University. His research interests include the theoretical, methodological, and philosophical peculiarities of conceptual change and personal epistemology in the context of engineering education and practice. He holds a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Washington State University.

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Milo Koretsky Oregon State University

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Milo Koretsky is a Professor of Chemical Engineering at Oregon State University. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from UC San Diego and his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, all in Chemical Engineering. He currently has research activity in areas related engineering education and is interested in integrating technology into effective educational practices and in promoting the use of higher-level cognitive skills in engineering problem solving. His research interests particularly focus on what prevents students from being able to integrate and extend the knowledge developed in specific courses in the core curriculum to the more complex, authentic problems and projects they face as professionals. Dr. Koretsky is one of the founding members of the Center for Lifelong STEM Education Research at OSU.

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Identification of Students’ Epistemological Resources and Frames in EngineeringUnderstanding how a student frames or interprets a learning experience gives us insight into howstudents approach learning and why they employ certain study habits. If a student’s personalepistemology, or how she/he views learning and knowing, does not align with an instructor’spedagogy, it could undermine efforts to engage students in active learning environments. Byidentifying views of learning, we can address them and better improve student learning practice.The literature on personal epistemology has historically taken a unitary ontology; that is, it treatspersonal epistemologies as entrenched beliefs that exist independent of context. In contrast, wefollow the view suggested by Elby and Hammer that personal epistemologies are manifoldconstructs that consist of fine-grained elements called resources. When networks of resourcesare activated and reinforce one another, they can become stable and form belief-like structurescalled frames. Unlike the unitary standpoint, this manifold view indicates that epistemologicalframes are highly context-dependent and are not always clearly defined. In a learningenvironment, a student’s epistemological frame influences how she/he approaches newknowledge, and it plays a critical role in how the student experiences that context.In this research paper, we explore how undergraduate chemical engineering students frame theirexperience in a junior level thermodynamics course that uses concept based instruction. We posethe following research questions: How do students frame what it means (i) to gain understandingand (ii) to perform well in chemical engineering? How are these views influenced by their priorexperiences in school? If these experiences negatively affect their frames, what strategies caninstructors use to shift students to more productive epistemological frames?We examine free response written explanations of the thermodynamic students. Following thefirst midterm, students read an American Journal of Physics article by Elby which investigateswhy students in physics courses may rely on rote memorization techniques. The thermodynamicsstudents then answer five open-ended questions, including whether they believe their engineeringclasses rewarded rote learning. We analyzed 158 responses using emergent coding to identifythemes and epistemological frames.Themes that were identified included the type of learning (rote vs. conceptual) the studentviewed as best suited for (i) gaining understanding and (ii) grade performance, and (iii) the typeof learning which they chose to employ. Many students indicated that true understanding camethrough conceptual learning, with a majority of those students also indicating that someengineering classes reward rote learning. Our analysis shows that a subset of students perceivedthis reward “forced" them to use rote memorization to obtain a good grade. This result illustratesone way in which students’ prior school experiences influence how they approach learning.Students’ varied descriptions of rote memorization and conceptual learning are interpreted interms of common epistemological frames. For example a frame identified was “mathematicalequations require only rote memorization.” This frame is activated by a set of resourcesincluding the “equations are facts” resource.

Smith, C., & Bowen, A., & Montfort, D., & Koretsky, M. (2014, June), Identification of Students’ Epistemological Frames in Engineering Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20576

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