Investigating engineering students‘ learning – learning as the learning of a complex concept
2010 (English)In: Proceedings of the Joint International IGIP-SEFI Annual Conference 2010, 2010Conference paper (Refereed)
In both engineering and physics education, a common objective is that students should learn to use theories and models in order to understand the relation between theories and models, and objects and events, and to develop holistic, conceptual knowledge. During lab-work, students are expected to use, or learn to use, symbolic and physical tools (such as concepts, theories, models, representations, inscriptions, mathematics, instruments and devices) in order both to understand the phenomena being studied, and to develop the skills and abilities to use the tools themselves. We have earlier argued that this learning should be seen as the learning of a complex concept, i.e. a “concept” that makes up a holistic system of “single” interrelated “concepts” (i.e. a whole made up of interrelated parts). On the contrary, however, in education research it is common to investigate “misconceptions” of “single concepts”. In this paper we will show the power of analysing engineering students’ learning as the learning of a complex concept. In this model “single concepts” are illustrated as nodes or “islands” that may be connected by links, while the links that students actually make are represented by arrows. The nodes in our model are found by looking for “gaps” in the actions and conversations of students. A gap corresponds to a non-established link, and when a gap is filled and the students establish a relation between two nodes, this is represented by a link. The more links that are made, the more complete the knowledge. In this study we report an analysis of a sequence of labs about AC-electricity in an electric circuit theory course. In for example electric circuit theory the “concepts” of current, voltage and impedance are interdependent. Rather, the central physical phenomenon is “electricity” represented by Ohms law as a generalization of the current/voltage/impedance/frequency-relationship of a circuit or circuit element. The results show the learning of “electricity” as a complex concept with students’ knowledge becoming more complete. Furthermore, according to our analysis “entities” that in later labs were fused into one were separate in the earlier labs. For example in a later lab we could note that “the physical circuit” and “the circuit drawing” had fused into a single “real circuit”. Our results suggest that the learning of a complex concept first start with establishing more and more links. As links become well established, “entities” that have been separate fuse into a whole. Our model suggests a method for finding “learning difficulties” since these corresponds to “gaps” and non-established links. As teachers and experts in a field we can miss to uncover these since for us the ‘complex concept’ has become a conceptual whole and we may no longer be able to distinguish the parts in the complex. In line with the thesis of M. Holmberg we also argue that learning problems in electric circuit theory may be due to the common failure to appreciate that concepts are relations.
Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Engineering education research, labwork, learning of a complex concept
IdentifiersURN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-65601ISBN: 978-2-87352-003-8OAI: oai:DiVA.org:liu-65601DiVA: diva2:397178
Joint International IGIP-SEFI Annual Conference 2010, 19- 22 September 2010, Trnava, Slovakia