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Why Not Ask Students to Explain Themselves? Enhancing Conceptual Testing with Technical Writing

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Chemical Engineering Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1739.1 - 26.1739.7



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Paper Authors


Matthew Cooper North Carolina State University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Matthew Cooper is a Teaching Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at North Carolina State University where he teaches Material and Energy Balances, Unit Operations, Transport Phenomena, and Mathematical / Computational Methods. He is the recipient of the 2014 NCSU Outstanding Teacher Award, 2014 ASEE Southeastern Section Outstanding New Teacher Award, and currently serves as the ASEE Chemical Engineering Division’s newsletter editor. Dr. Cooper’s research interests include effective teaching, conceptual and inductive learning, integrating writing and speaking into the curriculum, and professional ethics.

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Enhancing Conceptual Testing with Technical WritingThis work describes written “Concept Quizzes” which aim to improve students’ understanding ofcritical engineering concepts while also developing skills in effective written technicalcommunication. The idea for this innovation arose from the exciting work currently beingperformed on concept-based instruction, in particular the efforts associated with the AIChEConcept Warehouse (AIChE-CW). The AIChE-CW provides chemical engineering educatorswith instruments which can effectively teach and evaluate engineering students’ conceptualunderstanding of course material. This is important because conceptual learning is not well-served by traditional engineering coursework, which often places greater focus on workingequations rather than actually understanding the material.In addition to the challenges facing engineering students to achieve conceptual understanding,many students also possess written communication skills below that expected by their anticipatedpositions in the workplace. It has been shown that writing assignments effectively facilitatelearning by forcing students to explore connections and patterns in the studied material. Thesebenefits are enhanced in fields such as engineering, since students are rarely assigned reflectivewriting tasks and thus have few opportunities to develop associated abilities. The writtenConcept Quizzes described here aim to combine the qualities of conceptual multiple-choicequestions as currently exist on the AIChE-CW with the benefits of assigning written coursework.An example of a written Concept Quiz prompt is given in Figure 1. The prompt asks astraightforward question which requires no calculations. The lion’s share of the assignment gradeinvolves correctly answering “why?” There are two key challenges for students when theyencounter these explanations: 1) Do I have the conceptual understanding required to answer the question? 2) Can I communicate this understanding to another person skilled in the art in a brief, cogent written statement?Combining these two challenges allows students to be evaluated on their conceptualunderstanding while also developing communication skills. Even those students who do notpossess requisite conceptual understanding receive the benefits of writing opportunities. Inpreliminary study, students have been observed to identify mistakes in their answers when theybegin trying to explain themselves; this self-critique would seem to represent learning at theupper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Sample quiz questions as well as student performance andcomments indicating the effectiveness of written Concept Quizzes will be presented. Figure 1. Example Concept Quiz writing prompt.Request “Regular” ASEE Session

Cooper, M. (2015, June), Why Not Ask Students to Explain Themselves? Enhancing Conceptual Testing with Technical Writing Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.25075

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