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What makes an effective engineering diagram? A comparative study of novices and experts

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Preparing for Practice

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1366.1 - 23.1366.17



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Paper Authors


Alisha A Waller Georgia Institute of Technology

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Dr. Alisha A. Waller has been active within ASEE since 1991, serving the ERM Division in multiple capacities. She has won the Helen Plants Award three times and was awarded the Distinguished Service award in 1998. Her research interests include diversity, reflective learning, and multiple representations. Her teaching interests include optimization, probability, and statistics. She is currently affiliated with Biomedical Engineering Department at Georgia Tech.

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Joseph M LeDoux Georgia Institute of Technology


Wendy C Newstetter Georgia Institute of Technology

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Dr Wendy C. Newstetter is the Director of Educational Research and Innovation in the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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Expert / Novice Agreement on “Good” DiagramsEngineers have a particular, predictable way of working. Problems first encountered through textor verbal description are translated into a diagram which abstracts the salient features, highlightsunderlying system structure, instantiates laws and principles, and organizes the complexity of theproblem. The diagram becomes a “tool for thinking”, a bootstrapping mechanism which servesas the basis for creating a symbolic/mathematical model for further analysis. Learning to createand successfully employ the many engineering-community-sanctioned diagrams (e.g. free bodydiagrams, multi-unit flow diagrams, circuit diagrams) is a major goal for engineering studentsand educators alike.The research presented in this paper is part of an extensive study on the text to diagram tosymbol translations and representations utilized within a course on mass and energy balance. Fordiagnostic purposes at the start of the term, students were given a textual description of a multi-unit system and directed to develop diagrams to represent the system for the purpose ofoptimizing the system. After pairs discussed their diagrams, they were given a set of sevendifferent diagrams developed by the professor and asked to rank order them with respect to theirusefulness in further analysis of the system. This task assessed whether the students couldrecognize good qualities for a diagram to have. In this paper, we analyze the agreement betweenexperts and the students on the diagram rankings using Cohen’s weighted kappa and Fleiss’skappa. In addition, we discuss the task in context, the ensuing class discussion regarding criteriafor a good diagram, and the implications of our findings for helping students develop thecapacity for diagrammatic development and reasoning.

Waller, A. A., & LeDoux, J. M., & Newstetter, W. C. (2013, June), What makes an effective engineering diagram? A comparative study of novices and experts Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--22751

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