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Teaching and Learning Complex Circuit Concepts: An Investigation of the Intersection of Prior Knowledge, Learning Activities, and Design of Learning Environments

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Circuits & Systems Education I

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Nicole P. Pitterson Oregon State University, Corvallis Oregon Orcid 16x16

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Nicole is a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State University. She holds a PhD in Engineering Education from Purdue University and other degrees in Manufacturing Engineering from Western Illinois University and a B.Sc. in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from the University of Technology, Jamaica. Her research interest is eliciting conceptual understanding of AC circuit concepts using active learning strategies.

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Ruth A. Streveler Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Ruth A. Streveler is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Dr. Streveler has been the Principal Investigator or co-Principal Investigator of ten grants funded by the US National Science Foundation. She has published articles in the Journal of Engineering Education and the International Journal of Engineering Education and has contributed to the Cambridge Handbook of Engineering Education Research. She has presented workshops to over 500 engineering faculty on four continents. Dr. Streveler’s primary research interests are investigating students’ understanding of difficult concepts in engineering science and helping engineering faculty conduct rigorous research in engineering education.

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Eliciting students’ conceptual understanding of electric circuits has been discussed as challenging to achieve owing to difficulties faced by students when learning circuit concepts. This difficulty has been attributed to the posit that students tend to hold very little formal pre-conceptions of electricity. This then becomes problematic as the level of complexity increases from the most basic to more advanced circuit concepts. This lack of formal prior knowledge has the potential to prevent students from being able to assimilate new material they come in contact with when instructed about electric circuit concepts. Other impeding factors reported have been the influence of students’ prior misconceptions, the abstract nature of the content, inadequate instructional strategies to provoke conceptual conflict and inadequate preparation of students from pre-requisite courses. However, a gap that still exists is the direct interaction between: (1) students’ prior knowledge, (2) the types of learning activities and (3) the design of the learning environment fueled by the decisions made by professors on how to teach circuit concepts.

This study focused on exploring undergraduate electrical engineering students’ conceptual understanding of electric circuits based on the previously noted interaction. This study was conducted using three distinctive approaches: firstly, to investigate the influence of prior knowledge about other circuit phenomena when learning about more complex scientific concepts, secondly to examine the role of learning environments and student activities on students’ understanding of these concepts and thirdly to study the design and dissemination of knowledge about electric circuits in an introductory course. The overarching findings of this study deal primarily with the design of introductory courses having alignment between content, assessment and pedagogy. This alignment has direct impact on the decisions made about the teaching and application of content, design of the learning environment and how the content is communicated to the students. Findings have indicated the misalignment that exist between the three core areas of learning in course design. These results have theoretical and practical significance to the field of engineering as well as contribute to the body of literature on complex circuits such as alternating current (AC) circuits and students’ conceptual understanding. The core findings of the three studies independently and collectively have the ability to significantly impact the way future engineers are taught introductory concepts in their respective disciplines.

Pitterson, N. P., & Streveler, R. A. (2016, June), Teaching and Learning Complex Circuit Concepts: An Investigation of the Intersection of Prior Knowledge, Learning Activities, and Design of Learning Environments Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26018

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