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Operational Definition and Assessment

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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

Engineering Physics & Physics Division Technical Session 2

Tagged Division

Engineering Physics & Physics

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1207.1 - 26.1207.8



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Paper Authors

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Robert A. Ross University of Detroit Mercy

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Operational Definition and AssessmentIf one word could sum up recent and future trends in higher education it may well be“assessment”. Faculty are assessing student learning outcomes, departments are assessingfaculty performance and course outcomes, the administration is assessing department andprogram goals and objectives, and external accrediting agencies are assessing colleges anduniversities. Assessment is here to stay and there is only going to be more of it, not less.In some sense as engineering educators, since we have been assessing student learning andcourse and program outcomes for years under the context of ABET evaluation, we are muchbetter positioned than some of our liberal arts colleagues. Those of us who teach as part of theengineering curriculum have recognized for many years that if we do not measure what studentsare learning then we really do not know what or how to teach.In this paper we will argue why we believe the use of the operational definition of technicalterms should be an organizing principle in physics and engineering courses. How the careful useof operational definitions can allow students to understand difficult concepts in physics andengineering and to apply them in new and varied contexts. We will provide examples ofoperationally defined technical terms and their practical use in the classroom and laboratory. Wewill show that by organizing student learning outcomes and course objectives around theoperational definition of technical terms we can simplify the assessment of student learning,determine student strengths and weaknesses, and determine if course goals and objectives arebeing met.While the ABET General Criteria 5 on curriculum is silent on calculus-based physics theprogram criteria are not. The program criteria for Architectural Engineering states; “Theprogram must demonstrate that graduates can apply mathematics through differential equations,calculus-based physics, and chemistry.” The program criteria for Mechanical Engineering states“basic science” while Electrical Engineering mentions “physical science.” While we are notABET evaluators, in our experience, all of the engineering students at our institution (we do nothave an engineering technology program) are required to take a year of calculus-based physicswith the associated laboratories. We will show how we can use operational definitions offundamental concepts from calculus, derivatives and integrals, and incorporate them intointroductory physics courses. We will also give some examples from upper level courses wherestudents encounter distribution functions and spectra. In fairness, we also provide an example ofhow the operational definition of a technical term fails spectacularly in quantum theory.

Ross, R. A. (2015, June), Operational Definition and Assessment Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24544

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