ENE 69500-004

Conceptual Change Theory and Concept Inventories

3 credits CRN 11958 (Spring 2015)

Fridays, 10:30 – 1:20 ARMS 1028



Ruth Streveler
Office: ARMS 1307
Office hours: Mondays, 11:00am – 1:00pm

Apprentice Faculty

Emily Dringenberg
Office hours: By appointment

CONTENT: This 3-credit graduate course is designed for advanced graduate students in Engineering, Science or Technology who have a deep interest in investigating conceptual understanding. The course will explore the following four questions about concepts in engineering and science:

Q1: What concepts are difficult for students to understand?

Q2: Why are these concepts difficult?

Q3: How could one measure conceptual understanding of these concepts?

Q4: How does one design learning environments that promote conceptual understanding?

Students will be asked to think about these questions (Q1-Q4) in the context of a particular concept of their choosing in engineering or science. The culminating assessment will be a “case study” of a concept that addresses Q1-Q4 regarding that concept.

Enduring outcomes for this course:

  • Be able to critically analyze and synthesize the literature on difficult concepts in engineering education, science education, and psychology
  • Be able to make arguments about difficult concepts in engineering, science or technology that are backed up with evidence from the conceptual change literature

Important to know aspects of this course:

  • Major theories of conceptual change (Chi, Vosniadou, diSessa, Minstrel)
  • How to evaluate concept inventories (using the Assessment Triangle)
  • How to select learning environments that are consistent with theories of learning

Prerequisite knowledge:

Students coming in to the course are expected to be able to:

  • Locate and critically read literature on conceptual understanding and conceptual change in engineering education or science education.
  • Locate and critically read theoretical literature about conceptual understanding and conceptual change in psychology and education.
  • Locate and critically read literature about their chosen “case study” engineering or science concept.
  • Create arguments based on evidence from this literature.

It will also be useful (but not critical) to be familiar with the Assessment Triangle, as that framework will be used to evaluate concept inventories (Q3).

ASSESSMENT: Students will be assessed on their ability to answer questions Q1 – Q4 about a concept of their choosing*. Student thinking about their answers to these questions will be developed throughout the semester through weekly discussions, three blog postings (10% each = 30%), two presentations (10% each = 20%). and a final paper (50%) that summarizes and synthesizes their thoughts. The final paper is the culminating assessment for the course and activities of the class are focused around helping students develop the thinking needed to build their case study. More details about each of these assessments are given below.

*A note about selecting a concept:

It is highly recommended that the concept you choose be one that fascinates you and is one that you have experience learning and perhaps teaching. Ideally, the question “why is this difficult?” has been bothering you for a while. You will do a deep dive into this concept, and you need to have passion to sustain your interest. Because the course focuses on concepts in science and engineering, the concept you choose should be within, or can be directly connected to science or engineering.

Weekly discussion: Each week, students will discuss (1) assigned readings, (2) literature they have located and read that is specific to their “case study” concept, and (3) how readings from (1) and (2) inform their thinking with regards to their final “case study” project. These discussions will not be assessed per se, but are essential to develop, in a deliberate, distributed way, the thinking necessary to create artifacts that are assessed.

Blog posts:

Three blog posts will act as drafts of three sections of the final paper. They should be thoughtfully written and make an argument that is backed up with evidence from the literature (both literature assigned by the instructor and literature discovered by the individual student). At the minimum, the argument should compare at least two approaches and provide the rationale for choosing one approach over the other.

These questions will be used in assessing the blog post:

  1. Is the post clearly and logically written with correct spelling and grammar? (2 pts.)
  2. Is an argument made that compares at least two approaches? (2 pts.)
  3. Is there a recommendation about which of the two approaches is more appropriate? (2 pts.)
  4. Is the argument backed up with literature? (2 pts.)
  5. Is the literature cited with correct APA format? (1 pt.)
  6. Is the post uploaded by the assigned date and time? (1 pt.)


Students will present on two topics during the semester.

A presentation on concept inventories on March 27. Goals: The presentation should (1) compare at least two concept inventories and (2) use the Assessment Triangle as a guide to evaluating those inventories.

A presentation about their case study on April 24. Goals: The presentation should (1) present an overview of the student’s case study with (2) attention to alignment between why the concept is difficult, how it is measured and the design of learning environments to help students learn the concept.

These questions will be asked to assess the presentations:

  • Is the presentation logical and clear? (2 pts.)
  • Does the presentation address the primary respective goals stated above? (6 pts.)
  • Is the presentation completed within determined time constraints? [Note that the length of the presentations will be determined after class size is finalized]. (2 pts.)

Final paper:

The final paper can be thought of as a “case study” of a concept. In this paper, students will address the following questions about their selected difficult concept:

  1. What evidence is there in the literature that your case study concept is difficult? Compare at least two possibilities and use the literature to argue one approach is more appropriate that the other. (3-5 pages)+
  2. Why do you think this concept is difficult? Compare at least two possibilities and use the literature to argue one approach is more appropriate that the other. (5-10 pages)+
  3. How do you measure this concept? Compare at least two assessment methods for measuring this concept directly or indirectly. Make a recommendation about which measure to use in specific contexts. Back up your choices with evidence from the literature using the Assessment Triangle as a guide. Your reasoning should be consistent with your argument in part (2). (5-10 pages)+
  4. What types of learning environments have been used to increase conceptual understanding of difficult concepts? Compare at least two learning approaches that have been used. Use the literature to argue one approach is more appropriate that the other. Your reasoning should be consistent with your arguments in parts (2) and (3). (5-10 pages)+

+Note that the page ranges for the final paper are recommendations – not minimum or maximum lengths.

The paper will be assessed using clarity, evidence and alignment as criteria.

  • Regarding evidence: The paper must also include a reference section and referencing within the body of the paper and in the bibliography must be in correct APA format. See Purdue Online Writing Program resources for APA formatting.
  • Regarding alignment: Alignment is needed your argument for WHY a concept is difficult, HOW it will be assessed and HOW the learning environment will be designed. These three things should be stressed in your final presentation.

Weighting of sections of the final paper will be distributed in this fashion:

  • What concept is difficult? section (Q1)– 5 pts.
  • Why is it difficult? section (Q2) – 10 pts.
  • How to measure the concept section (Q3) –10 pts.
  • Learning environment section (Q4) – 10 pts.
  • Alignment of why, how to measure and learning environment sections (Q2, 3, 4) – 10 pts.
  • Clarity of writing [coherent, proper spelling, correct grammar] (3) and correct APA formatting of references in the body of the paper and in the reference section (2) – 5 pts.



The research is clear – long-term learning takes place only when accompanied by deliberate, distributed practice. To accomplish that end, this class is structured so that there is opportunity for reflection and iteration. Detailed feedback will be provided as you develop your ideas. Our philosophy is that:

  • Successful learning is fostered by clear objectives and expectations.
  • Learning is a social activity, and you will be encouraged to “think together” with your classmates.
  • Reading and writing are essential parts of the thinking process and you will be asked to use writing to DEVELOP your ideas (not only to document your “final” project).

We expect that you will:

  1. Fully engage with the material by reflecting on all assigned materials by the assigned time, actively participating in class discussions and activities, and completing quality work. Full engagement also means being attentive in class and limiting use of electronic devices to class-related activities such as taking notes or viewing slides.
  2. Develop your final paper throughout the semester and continually reflecting on how course material relates to your project.
  3. Follow scholastic conduct policy: https://www.purdue.edu/odos/academic-integrity/
  4. Complete and submit a thoughtful online course evaluation.

You can expect that we (the instructional team) will:

  1. Provide a supportive learning environment that fosters your success.
  2. Create assignments and exercises that are meaningful to you.
  3. Provide detailed, constructive formative feedback on your project drafts.
  4. Honor and respect your interests.

Relationship of Pedagogy to Content:

Questions Q1-Q4 will be explored through:

  1. Reading and discussing seminal readings chosen by the instructor.
    1. (See reading list and schedule on pages 5-7)
  2. Reading and discussing readings selected by the student.
    1. See pages 6-7 of the syllabus.
  3. Readings selected by students that pertain to their respective “case study” concept.
  4. In-class small group exercises and discussions (see more about discussions in the “assessment section”)
  5. Individual student writing (blog posts and a final paper)
  6. Individual student presentations

ACCOMODATIONS: If you are a person with special circumstances that you believe will affect your class performance (e.g., visual, hearing or learning disabilities or language differences) please let us know if we can make appropriate accommodations. The Adaptive Services website is located at: http://www.purdue.edu/disabilityresources/.


Instructor selected readings

Chinn, C. A. & Brewer, W.F. (1993). The role of anomalous data in knowledge acquisition: A theoretical framework and implications for science instruction. Review of Educational Research, 63 (1), 1-49.

Meyers, J.F. & Land, R. (2006). Chapter 1: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: An introduction. In J.F. Meyers & R. Land (Eds.), Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (pp. 3-18). London: Routledge.

Meyers, J.F. & Land, R. (2006). Chapter 2: Threshold concepts: Issues of liminality. In J.F. Meyers & R. Land (Eds.), Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (pp. 19-32). London: Routledge.

Murphy, P. K., & Alexander, P. A. (2008). The role of knowledge, beliefs, and interest in the conceptual change process: A synthesis and meta-analysis of the research. In S. Vosniadou (Ed.), International handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 583 – 616 ). New York, NY: Routledge.

Perkins, D. N. (2009). Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Slotta, J. D., & Chi, M. T. H. (2006). Helping students understand challenging topics in science through ontology training. Cognition and Instruction, 24(2), 261–289.

Säljö, R. (1999). Concepts, cognition and discourse: From mental structures to discursive tools. In W. Schnotz, S. Vosniadou, & M. Carretaro. (Eds.), New perspectives on conceptual change. Advances in Learning and Instruction Series (pp.81-90). Oxford: Pergamon.

Streveler, R.A., Brown, S., Herman, G.L., & Montfort, D. (2014). Conceptual change and misconceptions in engineering education: Curriculum-, measurement-, and theory-focused approaches. In A. Johri and B. Olds (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of engineering education research (CHEER). Add pages New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Streveler, R.A., Litzinger, T. A., Miller, R.L., & Steif, P. S. (2008). Learning conceptual knowledge in engineering: Overview and future research directions. Journal of Engineering Education, 97 (3), 279-294.

Streveler, R.A., Miller, R.L., Santiago Román, A.I., Nelson, M.A., Geist, M.R., & Olds, B.M. (2011). Using the “assessment triangle” as a framework for developing concept inventories: A case study using the thermal and transport concept inventory. International Journal of Engineering Education, 27 (5), 1-17.

Vosniadou, S. Conceptual change research: An introduction. (2008). In S. Vosniadou (Ed.), International handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. xiii-xxviii). New York, NY: Routledge.

Yang, D., Streveler, R.A., Miller, R.L., Slotta, J.D., Matusovich, H.M., & Magaña, A. J. (2012). Using computer-based online learning modules to promote conceptual change: Helping students understand difficult concepts in thermal and transport science. International Journal of Engineering Education, 28 (3), 686-700.

Student selected readings

Students will develop a reading list for their respective “case study” of a concept paper.

Students will also choose readings for selected class sections (see syllabus).

COURSE SCHEDULE for Spring 2015


Class focus

Assigned readings due

Deliverables due

Jan 16


Course overview, introductions



Jan 23

Q1 #1

Q1- What concepts are difficult?

Frameworks for identifying what’s difficult: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge

Meyers & Land (2006) – Chapters 1 and 2

Perkins (2009) – Chapter 3, Work on the hard parts, pp. 79-107.


Be ready to discuss potential concepts for your “case study”

Jan 30

Q1 #2

Overview of difficult concepts in engineering

Streveler et al. (2008)

Streveler et al. (2014)

Select a concept for your “case study”

Feb 6

Q2 #1


Q2 – Why are these concepts difficult

Conceptual change theories

Chinn & Brewster (1993)

Vosniadou (2008)


Readings by DiSessa and Minstrel are selected


Feb 13

Q2 #2

The “fragmented” argument

DiSessa – students choose reading(s)

Minstrel – students choose reading(s)


Reading(s) by Vosniadou are selected

Feb 20

Q2 #3

Ruth is travelling

The “coherent” argument

Chi et al. (2012)

Vosniadou – students choose reading(s)

Blog post on why you think your “case study” concept is difficult

Feb 27

Q2 #4


Conceptual change as a social activity

Murphy & Alexander (2008)

Söljö (1999)

Readings about engineering concept inventories are selected

Mar 6

Q3 #1


Q3 – How do you measure conceptual change? Using the Assessment Triangle

Streveler et al. (2011)

Readings on engineering concept inventories selected by students


Mar 13

Q3 #2

Concept inventories in engineering and science

Readings on engineering concept inventories selected by students


Mar 20




Mar 27

Q3 #3


Concept inventories in engineering and science

Student presentations on concept inventories they have been investigating

Blog post on your research on how to measure your “case study” concept

April 3


Integration of Q1-Q4

Individual and small group work to integrate alignment of Q1-Q3, plan for Q4

Recommended: First draft of your final paper for peer review

April 10

Q4 #1

Q4 – Learning environments that increase conceptual understanding

Ontological shifts and conceptual change

Slotta and Chi (2006)

Yang et al. (2012)

Readings by Krause and Steif are selected

April 17

Q4 #2

Ruth is potentially at AERA

Curriculum-focused conceptual change research in engineering

Krause – students choose readings

Steif – students choose readings

Blog post about learning environments that foster conceptual change for your “case study” concept

April 24

Student presentations

Presentations on your case study of a concept


May 1

Peer review of case study draft



May 8

Finals weeks


Post your project paper [case study of a concept] to Blackboard by Wednesday, May 8, at 11:59pm.

NOTE ON REMOTE ACCESS: In the event that the University is closed for an extended period of time due to a weather or health emergency, class sessions will be held remotely.