Conceptual understanding of threshold concepts of electrical phenomena: Mental models of senior undergraduates in electrical engineering

Mark T Carnes, Purdue University


Every field of study has a set of domain-specific concepts that anyone who desires to work in that field must know and understand. Most students who pursue university degrees in engineering trust that their education is designed to provide them with this knowledge. But does it? In electrical engineering (EE), conceptual understanding of electrical phenomena has rarely been addressed. Even though the presumed goal of instructors and students alike is to learn the concepts of electrical phenomena well enough to be able to use the concepts to design useful things, it is difficult to determine whether this goal is being achieved. The purpose of this study was to develop reasonable representations of the mental models used by senior EE students as they thought about and worked with electrical phenomena. Focusing on students’ mental models of threshold concepts in electrical phenomena can thus increase knowledge of students’ conceptual understanding, which can contribute to systematic research into pedagogical and assessment methods in this area of study, which forms one of the most basic and fundamental areas of knowledge needed by EE students. Thus, the research question addressed by this study was: What do senior EE students’ mental models of the fundamental electrical phenomena of voltage, current, and the relationship between them look like? The theory of mental models claims that everyone organizes their understanding of the way the world works by constructing models in the mind by which they both explain phenomena that they observe, and make predictions about what is likely to occur in a given situation. To observe the students’ mental models in operation, semi-structured interviews were used to engage the participants in a conversation concerning their knowledge and experience in applying electrical ideas. Using discourse analysis, a representation of each student’s mental model was created, consisting of a concept map and a short narrative. While the models were all different, analysis of them as a group led to the emergence of five dominant themes, or ways of thinking. The findings of this study have implications for the course of study that these students are engaged in. How effective has it been in developing the conceptual understanding that they will need after they graduate? Knowledge of the outcomes of a course of study: the conceptual understanding of these students, the misconceptions present in their models, and the dominant themes that drive their models, can inform ongoing efforts in curriculum development.




Diefes-Dux, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Engineering|Electrical engineering|Higher education

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