Share the Future IV

Difficult Concepts in Science and Engineering:
Identifying, Assessing, and Helping Students Learn Them

Ruth A. Streveler, Mary Nelson, Barbara M. Olds, and Ronald L. Miller
Colorado School of Mines

PowerPoint Presentation



Many engineering faculty are frustrated when their students can correctly solve problems but cannot explain the fundamental concepts governing the problem solution. Some concepts, like heat, electricity and equilibrium, are difficult for students to learn, even after they have been repeatedly "taught." Why is this so? Literally thousands of studies in the science and engineering education literature suggest that students bring to their classes preconceived ideas about how the world worksideas that are largely based on everyday experiences and observations but which may be fundamentally incorrect, though strongly held. Experienced professors may exacerbate the problem by having "expert" blind spots that block them from understanding why these concepts, now second nature to the expert, are so difficult for their students to learn.

In this interactive workshop, we will discuss

  • Which science and engineering concepts seem to be most difficult for students to learn,
  • Ways to measure students' understanding of these concepts,
  • Reasons why some concepts are so difficult to learn, and
  • Ideas for designing instruction to make these concepts easier to learn.

For each of these four points, we will discuss the results of research and also involve the participants in the discussion of their experiences with difficult concepts. The culminating activity of the workshop will be the participants' creation of a plan to use this information to modify the curriculum and/or assessment of a course they teach or will teach. Specifically, participants will be asked:

  1. How might you identify a difficult concept?
  2. How might you design a unit/course to teach it?

A copy of this plan will be given to the presenters for long-term follow-up.

Learning Objectives

  • Participants will identify at least one difficult concept in their fields of expertise.
  • Participants will have a plan for measuring difficult concepts in courses they teach and/or modifying their instruction to enhance student learning of this concept.


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