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Retention And Transfer Of Learning From Math To Physics To Engineering

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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

13.1048.1 - 13.1048.14



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Paper Authors

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Sanjay Rebello Kansas State University

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Lili Cui University of Maryland Baltimore County

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

Retention and Transfer of Learning from Mathematics to Physics to Engineering


Retention and transfer of learning is particularly important in the education of future engineers. Engineering majors are required to apply what they learn in their mathematics and physics courses to their engineering courses. We report on two studies. The first focuses on transfer from calculus to calculus-based physics. The second focuses on transfer from physics to engineering. We use a theoretical framework that distinguishes between two kinds of transfer processes. Based on this theoretical framework and using both qualitative and quantitative methods we examine the difficulties that learners have when they attempt to transfer their learning from mathematics to physics to engineering. Our results indicate that although students have the requisite calculus knowledge they have difficulties in applying this knowledge to physics and engineering courses. Our results also indicate that although learners see similarities between problems encountered in physics and engineering differences in notation and assumptions appear to impede transfer.


All engineering majors are required to take multiple calculus courses and two semesters of calculus-based physics as a pre- or co-requisite for their engineering courses. In our research we have investigated the extent to which these students retain and transfer their learning from calculus to physics and also from physics to engineering courses. While retention is the ability to recall your knowledge at a later point in time, transfer of learning is defined as the ability to apply what one has learned in one situation to a different situation.

Many introductory calculus-based physics students have difficulties when solving physics problems involving calculus. The participants in this study were students enrolled in a second- semester physics course taken by future engineers and physicists, calculus instructors and physics instructors. A total of 416 students’ exam sheets were collected and reviewed. A total of 28 students and nine instructors were interviewed.

Most of the students enrolled in the calculus-based introductory physics sequence often go on to major in engineering. To investigate retention and transfer from physics to engineering, we created an inventory of questions based on concepts that instructors in engineering courses believe that students entering their courses should know. We then surveyed engineering students as they began their Statics & Dynamics and Electromagnetics courses to assess the extent to which they retained the relevant physics knowledge. In all over 149 students were surveyed and six students and faculty were interviewed.

Since this paper is an overview of two large studies, we do not provide detailed data or examples. Rather we describe general trends in our data and discuss how these trends shed light on what educators in mathematics, physics and engineering can do to facilitate transfer from one discipline to another more effectively. In this paper we first present our research questions.

Rebello, S., & Cui, L. (2008, June), Retention And Transfer Of Learning From Math To Physics To Engineering Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3778

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