Patterns of student conceptual understanding across engineering content areas

Devlin Montfort, Geoffrey L. Herman, Shane Brown, Holly M. Matusovich, Ruth A. Streveler, Olusola Adesope

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Much of the existing research on engineering students' conceptual understanding focuses on identifying difficult concepts in specific courses and curricula. Although there are a great number of findings from which engineering educators may be able to draw, few are directly transferable from their original context and few inform instructors about how to improve learning. This paper seeks to fill the gap by investigating conceptual understanding across four engineering disciplines. Specifically, the present study seeks to answer the following overarching research question: What are the patterns in engineering students' conceptual understanding across four engineering content areas? We used an amplified secondary qualitative data analysis to examine over 250 interviews with engineering students that were initially conducted to understand students' conceptual understanding in different disciplines of engineering. The engineering topics represented in the data set included mechanics of materials, transportation engineering, fluid mechanics, and digital logic. Two themes emerged from our analysis that apply to students' understanding across four diverse content areas within engineering: (1) students inappropriately group dissimilar phenomena, processes, or features, and (2) students reason using simplified causal relationships. These themes lend themselves to suggestions for instructional practice across disciplines and for future research areas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1587-1604
Number of pages18
JournalInternational Journal of Engineering Education
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2015


  • Conceptual change
  • Conceptual understanding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • General Engineering

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