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Investigating And Addressing Learning Difficulties In Thermodynamics

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Physics Education Research (PER) Relevant for Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.812.1 - 13.812.11



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Paper Authors

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David Meltzer University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Investigating and Addressing Learning Difficulties in Thermodynamics


Study of thermodynamic principles forms a key part of the basic curriculum in many science and engineering fields. However, there are very few published research reports regarding student learning of these concepts at the college level. As part of an investigation into student learning of thermodynamics, we have probed the reasoning of students enrolled in introductory and advanced courses in both physics and chemistry at a large Midwestern university. The total sample size was over 1800 students in the physics courses alone, and approximately 90% of these students were engineering majors. Part of this work included examination of learning difficulties encountered by physics and engineering students enrolled in an upper-level (junior/senior) thermal-physics course. We used a combination of free-response diagnostic questions administered in written form, and hour-long clinical interviews with individual students in which they explained their reasoning while solving problems. We found that up to 80% of the introductory students were unable to make practical application of the first law of thermodynamics in problem solving even after instruction had been completed, and many had a seriously flawed understanding of the meaning of heat and work. In addition, a large majority retained significant confusion regarding the role of entropy within the context of the second law of thermodynamics. In many cases, part of the difficulty could be traced to interchanging the roles of state functions on the one hand with process-dependent quantities on the other, to overgeneralization of conservation principles in inappropriate contexts, or with confusion regarding the meaning of commonly used terms such as “system” and “surroundings.” We found that a majority of the upper-level students at the beginning of their course retained most of the specific learning difficulties seen among the introductory students. We have attempted to address these difficulties through learning strategies that emphasized working in small groups on research-based guided-inquiry worksheets. Our experience in probing and addressing these learning difficulties may provide insights into analogous pedagogical issues in upper-level courses in engineering which focus on the theory and applications of thermodynamics.


For the past eight years, my research group has been investigating student learning in thermodynamics in physics courses at both the introductory and advanced levels. Through this investigation we have probed students’ learning difficulties at different points in their undergraduate training. A large majority of the students in the introductory course were engineering majors, and thus for most of them this course was their first detailed exposure to thermodynamic concepts. Our experience in addressing students’ learning difficulties in thermodynamics may provide insights into analogous pedagogical issues in upper-level courses in engineering which focus on the theory and applications of thermodynamics.

A particular focus of our work has been to examine the learning difficulties encountered by physics, chemistry, and engineering students enrolled in a junior/senior-level thermal physics

Meltzer, D. (2008, June), Investigating And Addressing Learning Difficulties In Thermodynamics Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3900

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