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Student Preconceptions And Heuristics In Learning Design

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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

Capstone Design Pedagogy II

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1120.1 - 15.1120.14



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Paper Authors


Steven Zemke Gonzaga University

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Steven Zemke is Associate Professor and Chair of Mechanical Engineering at Gonzaga University in Spokane Washington. He oversees the curriculum for all Mechanical design courses and teaches sections of each. His research area is pedogogy of design. Prior to teaching, he was a design engineer for 25 years at Hewlett Packard, General Instruments, and Bell Telephone Labs.

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

Student Preconceptions and Heuristics in Learning Design


One conundrum in teaching design is that students will learn and practice a design method and later abandon that method in favor of a “seat-of-the-pants” approach. It is as if they had not learned the method initially. This sequence of learning and then abandoning begs a question: “What went wrong in the initial learning?”

One major finding in the cognitive literature offers an answer to this question. The naïve preconceptions that students bring to a subject directly interfere with their learning.1,2 These preconceptions can interfere so strongly that some students don’t actually learn. When the learning session concludes, the students’ understanding reverts to their prior misconceptions. Consequently, in order for the new learning to take root, those preconceptions must be engaged and addressed during the learning. It seems reasonable that preconceptions affect design learning as well.

A number of disciplines (most notably physics3) have extensively identified common student misconceptions. These lists of misconceptions are discipline specific, that is, misconceptions in one discipline do not identify misconceptions in an unrelated discipline. However, once misconceptions are classified within a discipline, instructors can engage them as part of teaching the course.

This perspective highlights a fundamental hurdle for design instructors: students’ preconceptions about how to do design are not clearly identified. Without this knowledge, design instructors cannot systematically engage and address these preconceptions. Consequently, student learning in design is hampered.

The intent of this study was to identify preconceptions students bring to design and to frame them in terms of the cognitive literature. The preconceptions were explored using two sequential focus group discussions based on the questions, “What did you learn about design?” and “What did you need to un-learn to do design?”

The participants in this study had completed an intermediate level design class. The class used multiple design-build-test projects supported by lectures to teach design. The semester following this class, one design team was selected for the focus group discussions because they initially demonstrated low design ability but performed at a high level by the end of the term.

The data supported two findings:

1. Knowledge flows back to students from their own design as real-world constraints are enforced. As the students learn from their design, they develop a conceptual framework of how their design works or does not work. As this conceptual framework develops, misconceptions can also develop within that framework. These misconceptions can be very robust, require multiple interventions to resolve, and interfere with correct understanding of

Zemke, S. (2010, June), Student Preconceptions And Heuristics In Learning Design Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--15814

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