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Implementing Competency-based Assessment in an Undergraduate Thermodynamics Course

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Mechanical Engineering Technical Session: Feeling the Heat - Thermodynamics and Heat Transfer

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

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Paper Authors


Nicole Okamoto San Jose State University

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Nicole Okamoto is professor and chair of Mechanical Engineering at San Jose State University. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research areas are thermal system modelling and thermal management of electronics. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the thermal sciences at SJSU and has been heavily involved with assessment and curriculum development for more than a decade.

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This paper examines the implementation of competency-based assessment in an undergraduate thermodynamics course. Following a method presented for an undergraduate dynamics class at the 2018 ASEE Annual Conference, subject matter in this class was divided into three categories – preliminary, required, and supplementary topics. Each category included multiple sub-topics, with a total of 13 sub-topics for the whole semester. Students were quizzed on each subtopic. Students could not take quizzes on topics in the next category unless they received a score of 88% or better on all the quizzes in the current category. Starting with the fourth class period, students had the opportunity to take up to two quizzes per week. For the course grading, 10% was based on computer simulations, 25% on the final exam (which was based only on preliminary and required topics), and the remaining 65% was based on how many quizzes the students passed with an 88% or better.

Student scores on specific final exam questions were compared to those of students in a course taught using traditional methods. Both sections used multiple choice questions from a published Thermodynamics Concept Inventory to gauge student understanding of fundamental concepts, and the average score for the two sections was the same (71.9% for concept-based grading and 73.5% for traditional grading). The two final exams also included one common calculation problem – second-law analysis of a steam turbine. Students with competency-based grading scored an average of 73% compared to 37% for traditional grading. Student GPA’s in both sections were examined to make sure that the difference was not due to stronger student enrollment in the CBE course.

The major benefit of this new method was the marked improvement in student ability to solve calculation problems of fundamental topics. Students were required to have a solid understanding of the earlier fundamental topics before moving on to more advanced topics. Student feedback about the new method was also very positive, and the pass rate for the class improved significantly compared to previous semesters with the same instructor. However, with the new method, some students never got far enough to take quizzes on the more advanced topics (gas mixtures and air conditioning processes), and the faculty workload for the first offering was very high. Recommended improvements to the course include adding weekly homework scores to the final course grade calculation and reducing the number of subtopics so that less class time is spent on quizzes.

Okamoto, N. (2020, June), Implementing Competency-based Assessment in an Undergraduate Thermodynamics Course Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34780

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