Undergraduate engineering students' understanding of complex circuits: an investigation of the intersection of students' prior knowledge, design of learning environments and the nature of the content

Nicole P Pitterson, Purdue University


Research focused on increasing students’ conceptual understanding of electric circuits discuss this concept as difficult to not only teach but for students to grasp. This difficulty has been attributed to the fact that students tend to hold inaccurate pre-conceptions of electricity which becomes problematic as the level of complexity increases from the most basic to more advanced circuit concepts. The combination of inaccurate and inadequate prior knowledge has the potential to prevent students from being able to assimilate new material they come in contact with when instructed about electric circuit concepts in formal settings. Often times, students’ inability to associate this new concept with correct pre-existing conception or prior knowledge leads to the development of misconceptions about the nature of electricity. With these issues in mind, this study focused on exploring undergraduate engineering students’ conceptual understanding of electric circuits through an investigation of three interconnected areas. The overall purpose of this study was to give a descriptive account of learning complex circuits. This dissertation took the form of three stand-alone in-depth studies aimed at answering the broad overarching question of: what are the underlying reasons for students’ perceived difficulty in learning complex circuit concepts? Using three distinct methods of inquiry such as an inductive/deductive thematic analysis of historical data, a systematic literature review of published work and a single descriptive case study with multiple embedded units, the central theme of this study was the alignment of prior knowledge, design of learning environments and how concepts are taught. The common finding of this work highlighted the lack of alignment between content, assessment and pedagogy. It was also found that in introductory courses students are exposed to concepts mostly in a mathematical way without much emphasis on the use of qualitative discussions. These results have significant implications for the teaching and practice of engineering. In addition, this work contributes to the body of literature on complex circuits such as alternating current (AC) circuits and students’ conceptual understanding. The model used to guide the study in terms of how the three individual studies support each other and align with the overarching research question provide useful information that can significantly improve the methods used to teach students complex concepts in introductory courses.




Streveler, Purdue University.

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