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The Importance of Context in Students’ Understanding of Normal and Shear Stress in Beams

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Understanding Students and Faculty

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1471.1 - 22.1471.12



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Paper Authors


Shane Brown Washington State University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Brown is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Washington State University. He conducts research in conceptual understanding, including identification of student preconception in several civil engineering areas, and longitudinal studies of conceptual change.

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Dean Lewis Washington State University

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A master's student conducting research in engineering education. More specifically focusing on student pre- and misconceptions in mechanics of materials.

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Devlin Montfort Washington State University

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Robby L. Borden Washington State University

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Students’ Mental Models of Forces and Stresses in Beams  Conceptual change describes the modification of existing knowledge, or concepts. Evenbefore their engineering coursework begins, students often have robust understandings ofengineering and science concepts developed through either previous instruction oreveryday experiences. These preconceptions can be incorrect and very resistant toconceptual change (misconceptions), even in the face of discrepant knowledge.Knowledge of these preconceptions for engineering courses and disciplines is essentialfor effective instruction to encourage conceptual change and to develop models andtheories of engineering conceptual change. Mechanics of materials is a sophomore levelcourse that is a part of most civil and mechanical engineering curricula. Concepts inmechanics of materials are fundamental to both disciplines and appear throughout thecurriculum. Previous work investigating mechanics of materials preconceptions hasshown that students have strong preconceptions related to shear and bending momentdiagrams and axially loaded members, but no research has been done to characterizestudents’ preconceptions related to beams. The goal of this study is to synthesizestudents’ understanding of stresses and strains in beams, including student pre- andmisconceptions, and how these conceptions interact with different contexts typical of themechanics of materials curriculum. Twenty students from two different universities wereinterviewed using clinical demonstration interview methods, utilizing an interviewprotocol presenting concepts of stress and strain in beams in multiple contexts. As anexample of a preconception identified in this research, students commonly do notdifferentiate between average and distributed stresses and believe that they represent thesame concept. Revealing what may be a misconception, students often believe that thebiggest stresses in beams are near applied loads and supports. This belief appears robustbecause it requires that students ignore rules and equations they use in some contexts todescribe the distribution of these stresses in beams. The identification of misconceptionsin mechanics of materials can be valuable for teaching this subject and developingconcept inventory questions. Future research should focus on determining the robustnessof these misconceptions and how they propagate in other concepts and contexts inmechanics of materials.

Brown, S., & Lewis, D., & Montfort, D., & Borden, R. L. (2011, June), The Importance of Context in Students’ Understanding of Normal and Shear Stress in Beams Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18490

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