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Using Writing Assignments to Improve Conceptual Understanding in Statics: Results from a Pilot Study

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Research Informing Teaching Practice I

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.1450.1 - 25.1450.18



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Paper Authors


Chris Venters Virginia Tech

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Chris Venters is a Ph.D. candidate in engineering education at Virginia Tech. His primary research interests involve studying conceptual understanding among students in early undergraduate engineering courses. He received his B.S. in aerospace engineering from North Carolina State University and his M.S. in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech.

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Lisa D. McNair Virginia Tech

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Lisa McNair is an Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech, where she also serves as Assistant Department Head for Graduate Education and co-directs the Virginia Tech Engineering Communication Center. Her research includes interdisciplinary collaboration, communication studies, identity theory, and reflective practice. Projects supported by the National Science Foundation include interdisciplinary pedagogy for pervasive computing design, writing across the curriculum in statics courses, and a CAREER award to explore the use of e-portfolios to promote professional identity and reflective practice. Her teaching emphasizes the roles of engineers as communicators and educators, the foundations and evolution of the engineering education discipline, assessment methods, and evaluating communication in engineering.

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Marie C. Paretti Virginia Tech Orcid 16x16

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Marie C. Paretti is an Associate Professor of engineering education at Virginia Tech, where she co-directs the Virginia Tech Engineering Communications Center (VTECC). Her research focuses on communication in engineering design, interdisciplinary communication and collaboration, design education, and gender in engineering. She was awarded a CAREER grant from NSF to study expert teaching practices in capstone design courses nationwide, and is Co-PI on several NSF grants to explore design education. Her work includes studies on the teaching and learning of communication in capstone courses, the effects of curriculum on design cognition, the effects of differing design pedagogies on retention and motivation, and the dynamics of cross-disciplinary collaboration in both academic and industry design environments.

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Using Writing Assignments to Improve Conceptual Understanding in Statics: Results from a Pilot Study  This paper presents results from a study examining the effects of short writing assignments onstudents’ conceptual understanding of statics content. In Spring 2011, a pseudo-experimentalmixed methods design was piloted to test the effectiveness of adding writing assignments to atraditional statics course to improve students’ conceptual understanding and performance. Theassignments, adapted from those reported by Hansen and Williams (2008), required students toexplain in words their solution process for solving particular homework problems. The presentstudy combines Hansen and Williams’ work with previous work by the authors investigatingdifferent ways that students approach learning in statics; the results of that study suggested that aconceptual approach may be more successful than an approach more indicative of behavioristprinciples (Authors, 2010).The “process problems” were collected once per week as a homework assignment and weregraded by a teaching assistant trained by a member of the research team. The experimentalgroup consisted of approximately 100 students enrolled in a single section of the course; thecontrol group was a separate section of comparable size taught by the same instructor. Gains inconceptual understanding were measured quantitatively using pre/post administrations of theStatics Concept Inventory (SCI) for both the experimental and control section. Grade data for allstudents was also collected as a quantitative measure of student performance. Additionally,qualitative data was collected through semi-structured interviews, which included a think-aloudprotocol, conducted with selected students from both sections.The results of the pilot study demonstrate positive learning gains from the process problems, butalso highlight potential areas for improvement and further study. The SCI results showsignificant differences in the mean gains between the two sections, with the experimental sectionaverage gain approximately 1.5 times higher than that of the control section. Survey andinterview results both indicated that students’ level of satisfaction (i.e. liked/disliked) varied, butno students felt the problems hurt their understanding. Moreover, the survey results indicate thatstudents who indicated dissatisfaction with the process problems cite unfair grading, rather thanthe work itself, as the primary reason. Preliminary analysis of the interviews suggest thatstudents who liked and benefited from the process problems might be students who alreadysought to approach the course from a more conceptual point of view; such students mentionedthat they often read for understanding and actively tried to connect homework problems tounderlying theory. In contrast, during the think aloud portion, several students showed difficultytalking about reaction forces, free body diagrams, and in many cases did not address equilibriumat all; these students tended approach course learning through repetition and trial and error.Overall, the results suggest positive benefits from the process problems, but also identify keyareas for further study to ensure successful implementation.

Venters, C., & McNair, L. D., & Paretti, M. C. (2012, June), Using Writing Assignments to Improve Conceptual Understanding in Statics: Results from a Pilot Study Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--22207

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