Developing and Cultivating Meta-Cognitive Strategies to Invoke Conceptual Knowledge Relevant to Engineering Problem Solving

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

The purpose of this research project is to create a valid, reliable instrument that tests only basic conceptual (non-numerical) knowledge of Statics. Since this conceputal knowledge underlies broader success in the subject, the project will explore whether or not students are able to recognize and appreciate salient portions of problems and thereby tap into relevant conceptual knowledge. 


The testing instrument for conceptual knowledge has been used by students at a wide range of post-secondary institutions that teach Statics, spanning the range from community colleges to top-ranked, private research universities. The experiments that tested the potential of a meta-cognitive strategy for tapping into conceptual knowledge were conducted with participants from Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh. 

Research Design: 

This project is cross-sectional and is designed to generate causal [experimental, statistical modeling] evidence. Original data are collected through assessments of learning or achievement tests and observation [videography].

For the testing instrument, a variety of classical psychometric analyses were carried out, such as reliability, discrimination analysis, factor analysis, item response theory, as well as correlation studies between the instrument results and performance on, for example, class examinations. For the experiments testing the meta-cognitive strategy, pre-post conditions and experimental and control conditions were compared using ANOVA.


Regarding the Testing Instrument:

Validity and reliability of the Statics Concept Inventory has been established through a variety of means. Meaningful correlations have been found between inventory scores and performance on course examinations, and even inventory sub-scores on specific concepts correlate with performance on certain types of problems. Additional psychometric studies, also involving comparisons with performance on course examinations, have enabled us to conclude, for example, that there are unlikely to be test-bias associated with gender, and that pre-tests correspond to random guessing and are predictive of subsequent performance in a course only for students who score very high on the pre-test. Analysis of student explanations have given new insight into some of the lapses that lead to selecting wrong answers, and even that the particular lapse in thinking can be inferred with some confidence from the particular wrong answer chosen. The case of equilibrium has been studied most extensively. We have found that, while students bring useful resources from their physics courses and they do think about force and moment balance in different contexts, the observed difficulties are attributed to the failure to think about both simultaneously and to do so consistently across contexts.

Experiments to test a meta-cognitive strategy:

Experiments were completed for 21 subjects, including 10 experimental and 11 control subjects. In summary, it was found that the experimental instruction, which sought to increase body centered talk, indeed selectively raised the frequency of that type of talk. We also found that the likelihood of errors in representing forces at free body diagrams was substantially lower when students talked about the bodies exerting the forces in question. This points to the more general possibility of devising effective instruction that has students learn to talk about salient features of problems, which in turn evokes pertinent conceptual knowledge.

Publications & Presentations: 

Journal Articles

P.S. Steif and Hansen, M.A, “Comparisons Between Performances in a Statics Concept Inventory and Course Examinations,” International Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 22, pp.1070-1076, (2006).

P.S. Steif and M. A. Hansen, “New Practices for Administering and Analyzing the Results of Concept Inventories", Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 96, pp. 205-212, (2007).

J.L. Newcomer and P.S. Steif, “Student Thinking about Static Equilibrium: Insights from Written Explanations to a Concept Question", Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 97, pp. 481-490, (2008).

P.S. Steif, J. M, Lobue, A. L. Fay, and L. B. Kara, “Improving Problem Solving Performance by Inducing Talk about Salient Problem Features," Journal of Engineering Education, Submitted for Publication.

Conference Publications

P.S. Steif, A. Dollar, and J. A. Dantzler, “Results from a Statics Concept Inventory and their Relationship to Other Measures of Performance in Statics,” 35rd ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Indianapolis, IN, October 19 – 21, 2005.

Hansen, M. A. & Steif, P. S. (April 2006). Using Results from Concept Inventories to Improve Teaching: Providing Feedback on Concept Scores. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. San Francisco.

P.S. Steif and M.A. Hansen, “Feeding Back Results from a Statics Concept Inventory to Improve Instruction”, Proceedings of the 2006 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, IL, June 18-21, 2006.

P. S. Steif, A. L. Fay, L. B. Kara, and S. E. Spencer, “Work in Progress: Improving Problem Solving Performance in Statics through Body-Centric Talk," 36th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, San Diego, CA, October 28 – 31, 2006.

J. L. Newcomer and P. S. Steif, “Student Explanations of Answers to Concept Questions as a Window into Prior Misconceptions”, 36th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, San Diego, CA, October 28 – 31, 2006.

P.S. Steif, J. Lobue, A. L. Fay, L. B. Kara, and S.E. Spencer, “Inducing Students to Contemplate Concept-Eliciting Questions and the Effect on Problem Solving Performance,” Proceedings of the 2007 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition, Honolulu, HI, June 24-27, 2007.

J. L. Newcomer and P. S. Steif, “Testing the Commonality of Student Conceptual Explanations Across Institutions,” Proceedings of the 2007 ASME International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition, Seattle, WA, November 2007.

J. L. Newcomer and P. S. Steif, “What Students ‘Know’ about Statics: Specific Difficulties Common Among Students Entering Statics,” 38th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Saratoga Springs, NY, October 22 – 25, 2008.

Other Products: 

The testing instrument (the Statics Concept Inventory) is now taken by students in many schools and has been one measure used in several studies by independent researchers.