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Work in Progress: Use of Storytelling in Mechanics Assessments

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Teaching Methods for Engineering Mechanics Courses

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Carrie A. Francis University of Northwestern, St. Paul Orcid 16x16

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Carrie Francis is an Assistant Professor of Engineering at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul. She received her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has previously received degrees in biomedical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis (B.S.) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (M.S.). Her teaching interests include general physics, statics & dynamics, and mechanics of materials. Her disciplinary research focuses on walking and balance in aging adults with an emphasis on gait variability and rehabilitation. Her other interests include outreach to K-12 students and improving science literacy among non-STEM major students.

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As a new faculty member at a small college, I teach our mechanics course sequence. As a result, I have the same students for multiple semesters. In learning to write exams, I drew inspiration from a dynamics professor at my own undergraduate institution, who was famous among engineering students for writing themed exams. Over the last year, I have taken this idea and made it my own, writing story-based exams for a calculus-based Physics I, Statics & Dynamics, and Mechanics of Materials. For me, having a story in mind while writing an exam can ease the process of coming up with questions and are a means of building rapport with my students. For students the stories serve two functions: they provide context for the questions posed that are consistent from problem to problem and they inject a bit of humor into the exam that can ease students’ anxieties. Themes have ranged from imagined adventures of a young cousin to familiar movies to building a playground. By providing a storyline to an exam, even when problems have different foci, allows students to follow along. For example, in a movie-themed exam, different questions might come from different parts of the movie. If students are familiar with the movie, they already feel like they know something about the exam. This can boost student confidence. They do not have to figure out the context of the question and can instead focus on what they need to solve. Exams typically result in increased stress for students. Stories can provide some humor on test day and help to relieve some of this stress. Some of my students even approach exam days with excitement because they want to know what the context will be. In review sessions ahead of exams, “What’s the theme?” is usually the first question from students. When selecting a theme, there are several potential approaches. The calendar can suggest storylines – such as an imaginative costumed child in late October or movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas in December. Alternatively, movies targeted to families that involve action or physical humor work well for physics and dynamics exams. For example, the traps in Home Alone worked well for a rigid body kinematics and kinetics exam. Movies are more difficult for mechanics of materials, but the course frequently focuses on designing for safety. Thus, a theme can put students in the context of designing a building or a playground and analyzing different loadings and associated deformations. I have also taken suggestions from students for themes. One of these was a farm theme for a mechanics exam, in part because a student recognized many the failure modes from growing up on a farm. Overall, most students respond well to story-based exams. They provide consistent, more generalized context for students. This approach has advantages for instructors as well since stories can suggest questions. In addition, adding elements of story and humor to assessment can build rapport with students. This is particularly valuable when teaching students over multiple semesters.

Francis, C. A. (2018, June), Work in Progress: Use of Storytelling in Mechanics Assessments Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--31313

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