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Work in Progress: Improving Critical Thinking and Technical Understanding as Measured in Technical Writing by Means of I-depth Oral Discussion in a Large Laboratory Class

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Work-In-Progress Postcard Session

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

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Paper Authors


Mechteld Veltman Hillsley Pennsylvania State University, University Park

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Dr. Hillsley is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. She received a BS in Chemical Engineering from Virginia Tech in 1988 and an MS and PhD from Penn State in 1990 and 1994, respectively. Dr. Hillsley spent approximately 10 years doing research at Penn State on fluid shear stress effects on mammalian cells before switching to teaching. Dr. Hillsley’s primary focus for the past 10 years has been teaching the Unit Operations Lab. Dr. Hillsley is married and has four children.

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Xueyi Zhang Pennsylvania State University

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Zhang is the John J. and Jean M. Brennan Clean Energy Early Career Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University. Zhang's teaching interests include mass transfer, unit operations, and chemical engineering lab. Zhang’s research interests are porous materials synthesis, membrane for separation, and catalysis. Before joining the Pennsylvania State University in 2015, Zhang obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 2013 (with Michael Tsapatsis). Following his Ph.D., Zhang worked in Enrique Iglesia’s group at the University of California, Berkeley as a postdoctoral researcher from 2013-2015.

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Engineers are expected to be good at critical thinking, yet it is something that is difficult to teach and difficult to measure. It is especially challenging to do so in a large class. Two common methods of improving critical thinking are through reflective writing and problem based learning. Another common element that is often shown to help is discussion, either between team members or facilitated by the instructor. A pilot study by Zhao(1) suggests that an oral exam in a large class helps student understanding as well as instructor awareness of student weaknesses. In this study we also aim to use an oral report and discussion time to improve the level of critical thinking in our senior level chemical engineering Unit Operations course. Our chemical engineering Unit Operations Lab is problem based by nature. We also emphasize technical writing to assess understanding of the material. However, written feedback on writing is often ignored by students or editing is applied simply to the location of the feedback, instead of reworking the entire document. We set out to increase the usefulness of instructor feedback by adding an oral report with discussion before the first written report. The discussion portion is the important part, in the author’s opinion. This is an opportunity to go in-depth with the students starting at their own level in the critical thinking development hierarchy and aiming to move them up one level by the time they write the written report. We noticed a shift in mean grade distribution by approximately 2.5 points, as measured by 1 tailed student t-test (p<0.04), when the oral discussion period was added to the course. The same instructors taught the course in successive semesters and graded all reports each time (n=72 and n=141, for pre- and post- change, respectively). In this Scholarship of Teaching and Learning work, instructor time is moved from time spend in the lab with students and grading mediocre reports to time spend listening to short oral reports and holding in-depth discussions with students while grading better thought out reports that more effectively link data to theory. It is much easier to read and grade a well written report than a poor one. Spending extra time with students in oral discussion reduces grading time. In addition, students receive oral feedback and have an opportunity to ask questions and clarify material, whereas written feedback may be easily ignored or not understood. As a result, students improve their level of critical thinking and technical discussion in written reports. This work will examine the impact of the oral discussion on student critical thinking development in more detail by focusing on key discussion points within the reports.

1. Zhao Y. Impact of oral exams on a thermodynamics course performance. 2018 ASEE Zone IV Conference, Boulder, Colorado, 2018, March. Internet.

Hillsley, M. V., & Zhang, X. (2019, June), Work in Progress: Improving Critical Thinking and Technical Understanding as Measured in Technical Writing by Means of I-depth Oral Discussion in a Large Laboratory Class Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33575

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