Engineering students' proficiency in electromagnetics : role of procedural and conceptual knowledge, and mathematics anxiety in learning of electromagnetics

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Sähkötekniikan korkeakoulu | Doctoral thesis (article-based)
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Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS , 58/2011
Mathematical proficiency is an important predictor of engineering success. However, the change of the demographics of engineering students has led to larger percentage of students with weak mathematics skills. Furthermore, electromagnetics courses are perceived as abstract and irrelevant. Students struggle with required mathematics and have been shown to have motivational difficulties when studying the subject. This thesis examines engineering students' conceptual and procedural knowledge, as well as mathematics anxiety that all relate to proficiency in electromagnetics. Students' conceptual knowledge is measured with the Conceptual Survey of Electricity and Magnetism (CSEM). Procedural knowledge is assessed from students' performance in complex problem exercises and in the final exam. Mathematics anxiety is evaluated with the Electromagnetics Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale (EMARS). The data (N=133) are collected from an undergraduate static field theory course at Helsinki University of Technology, Espoo, Finland. The data are analyzed using descriptive statistics, correlation, factor analysis, analysis of variance (ANOVA), linear regression, and Fisher's exact test. The results show that there is a relationship between procedural and conceptual knowledge in the context of electromagnetics. The findings suggest that in the context of electromagnetics, a basic conceptual knowledge is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for acquiring procedural knowledge. The prior conceptual knowledge predicts success in the final exam, but developing students' procedural skill with complex problem exercises during the course does not significantly enhance students' conceptual knowledge. The study shows that prior to instruction, 18% of students have a consistent or partially consistent alternative model of Newton's third law principle. This model impacts the performance of students. The results show also that 16% of engineering students experience high mathematics anxiety. Anxiety is found to be impacting students' procedural performance but not conceptual. The findings suggest that there is clearly a need to broaden the view of what types of knowledge are valued and assessed in engineering courses.
Supervising professor
Sihvola, Ari. Prof.,
Thesis advisor
Lavonen, Jari, Prof., University of Helsinki, Finland
conceptual and procedural knowledge, electromagnetics, engineering education, mathematics anxiety
Other note
  • [Publication 1]: Leppävirta, J., Kettunen, H. & Sihvola, A. (2011) Engineering students' conceptual knowledge of electro- and magnetostatics. Proceedings of the Progress in Electromagnetics Research Symposium (PIERS), 1661-1664, Marrakesh, Morocco.
  • [Publication 2]: Leppävirta, J., Kettunen, H. & Sihvola, A. (2010). Complex problem exercises in developing engineering students' conceptual and procedural knowledge of electromagnetics. IEEE Transactions on Education, 54(1), 63-66.
  • [Publication 3]: Leppävirta, J. (in press). The effect of naive ideas on students' reasoning about electricity and magnetism. Research in Science Education. doi: 10.1007/s11165-011-9224-7.
  • [Publication 4]: Leppävirta, J. (2007). Developing an instrument to measure engineering students' mathematics anxiety when learning electromagnetics. Proceedings of the ReflekTori2007, Symposium of Engineering Education, 81-91, Espoo, Finland.
  • [Publication 5]: Leppävirta, J. (2011). The impact of mathematics anxiety on the performance of students of electromagnetics. Journal of Engineering Education, 100(3), 1-20.