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Problem Set Zero

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Innovations in Civil Engineering Education III

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.986.1 - 15.986.31



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Paper Authors

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Steven Hart United States Military Academy

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Steven Kreh United States Military Academy

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Rhett Blackmon United States Military Academy

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Nicholas Melin United States Military Academy

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

Problem Set Zero

What these students were good at…was feeding back correct answers: they had mastered the arts of short-term memory and recall. The whole class was a wonderful example of what the British call “surface learning.” But very little “deep learning”—which comes with time, depth, practice, and reinforcement— seems to have occurred.1

This section of a keynote address by Theodore J. Marchese at the 1998 conference of the American Association for Higher Education gets right to the heart of a problem many educators face: which teaching techniques can encourage students to master course content. As professional engineers, we understand that our students’ success in the professional practice of engineering is contingent on their ability to remember and apply critical skills years after they learned them in school. As professional educators, our success in teaching these skills in the classroom is contingent on the students’ ability to remember and apply critical skills months after they learned them in the classroom. Clearly the former does not occur without the latter, and the latter, according to Marchese and others, is an elusive goal. This paper explains a technique developed and implemented by several Civil Engineering faculty members teaching structural mechanics, analysis, and design at the United States Military Academy in the Spring, 2009 and the Fall, 2009 terms to encourage mastery of critical skills and transfer of these skills to subsequent courses. The concept is called “Problem Set Zero” to stress the fact that the material being evaluated is from the prior course(s) and must be mastered before a student begins Problem Set One.

1. Introduction

1.1 Curriculum Structure

A common feature of Civil Engineering and other curricula is the establishment of prerequisite courses which allow students to progress from basic math and science to fundamental mechanics, and then to engineering design courses. A student’s education culminates in a capstone experience designed to integrate these parts into a coherent whole. As students progress from term to term, the courses they take require a constantly increasing baseline of knowledge gained and skills developed in previous courses. The success with which a student can perform the prerequisite skill and can apply the prerequisite knowledge will affect his or her performance in the current course. Entrance into a follow-on course is predicated on successful completion of the previous course, which is measured through exit exams. Success on an exit exam does not guarantee retention of material and the ability to apply it in follow-on course. In fact, instructor observations and student feedback over multiple years have indicated that our students were not carrying critical skills forward. This deficiency resulted in short reviews of carry-over material becoming detailed re-teaching of basic concepts at the beginning of each new block of material. Though students demonstrated a familiarity with the concepts,

Hart, S., & Kreh, S., & Blackmon, R., & Melin, N. (2010, June), Problem Set Zero Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--15844

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