President's Teaching Scholars Program

Rebecca Webb

Assistant Professor
University of Colorado Colorado Springs
Engineering and Applied Science
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
Osborne A446, 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway
Colorado Springs, CO 80918
(719) 255-3674

Peer Taught Blended Engineering Curriculum to Enhance Conceptual Understanding

The goal of the proposed work is to improve the conceptual understanding of engineering undergraduates through peer teaching. The proposed study expands on existing investigations that demonstrate the importance of writing and peer instruction in developing undergraduate conceptual understanding in STEM fields. This study will build on the process of explanation, inherent to these two methodologies, to create a new learning strategy – peer teaching. The hypothesis this pilot study will test is:
Engineering students immersed in a peer taught thermal fluid science curriculum, where they are required to develop and implement blended learning modules, will demonstrate enhanced conceptual understanding over students participating in a traditional lecture course.

Motivation and Literature Review
Most people would agree with the statement, you don’t truly understand something until you try to teach it to someone else. For a new professor, the process of developing a lecture or learning activity typically requires significant learning, and consequently, enhanced understanding, as they devise a meaningful, structured presentation. What would happen if we required our engineering students to teach? If they were responsible for creating a blended learning module, including a lecture and online supplement, would they achieve a deeper conceptual understanding of the topic? Both writing across the curriculum and student-centered instruction methodologies have been shown to be successful at promoting conceptual understanding [1] [2] [3]. A common theme between these different approaches is the need to clearly explain your solution to others. The proposed study builds on the explanation component of these existing methodologies and creates a new learning strategy – peer teaching.

Writing across the curriculum studies have shown writing activities, when properly constructed and implemented, to enhance conceptual understanding and critical thinking skills [1] [3]. The use of a composing process called a problem-driven model, used by many academic writers, has been suggested as a method of promoting active learning in all disciplines. Through this process the writer identifies a question, collects data, ruminates, creates a first draft, revises, and edits. Significant emphasis is placed on the difference between revision and editing [1]. Understanding the difference between revision and editing is required for this model , as the revision process is viewed as an additional time of discovery that is crucial to stimulating analysis.
Conceptual understanding in engineering students has been enhanced by the integration of writing assignments into core curriculum [3]. In one study, students indicated ‘the act of writing forced them to think and to understand exactly what they wished to say and that, as a result, their understanding of the material was enhanced’ [4].

Studies have shown that when students work collaboratively, they help each other learn [5]. Peer Instruction is an alternative to the traditional lecture that has been shown to enhance conceptual understanding in undergraduates. This method, as described and implemented by Mazur, dedicates one-third to one-half of a class period to ConcepTests [6]. The result of the Peer Instruction method is enhanced conceptual understanding and quantitative performance [6] , as well as improved student retention [7]. Heller et al. investigated a combined approach with problem solving instruction and student problem solving in cooperative groups. Comparing individually and group solved problems; the group demonstrated better conceptual understanding. Individuals of all ability levels showed improvement in problem-solving performance [5]. If it is assumed that students of the highest ability level are often times explaining concepts to their cohorts, this evidence would indicate teaching by undergraduates promotes learning.

Project Plan
The curriculum modification would be made to one of the core thermal fluid science sequence, Heat and Mass Transfer. This course was identified for implementation for two primary reasons. Each class is offered every semester, allowing the off-term to be used as a control, as well as allowing students who determine they prefer a more traditional offering the option to opt out. In addition, there is a clear need for improvement in this area as concept inventory data indicates that engineering undergraduates struggle with the concepts of heat, energy, and temperature [2].

Each student will be responsible for the development of a blended learning module, which includes the design and delivery of a lecture on a key concept, as well as the creation of a complementary online activity. Classes involving a peer teacher component will begin with a 30 minute student lecture. Directly following the lecture, the class will break into small groups for ten minutes of discussion. During this time students will be tasked with identifying and answering two questions associated with areas of the lecture that were unclear or where they would have liked more detail to be provided. The remaining 30 minutes of class the professor will answer any remaining questions, further address any critical and/or difficult concepts, and work examples. A risk mitigation plan will be implemented to reduce potential issues including (a) resistance to the alternative delivery and (b) inadequate presentation of the material by the students.

Assessment of conceptual understanding will be in the form of multiple choice conceptual quizzes, concept inventories, and final exams. Additional data in the form of attitudes and beliefs and background surveys will also be collected. Data will be collected from both the peereaching-based and lecture-based courses and evaluated for trends.

The PI gained invaluable insight into the design and implementation of communication based assignments in a semester long Writing Across the Curriculum seminar and would apply this knowledge to the proposed project. She would be able to attend required meetings and has identified a potential mentor in David Weiss ( She would be more than willing to serve as a coach in a future year.