Abstract concepts made real: A pilot study examining pedagogical approaches in thermodynamics tutorials

Capra, Bianca, Dawes, Les, & Brown, Richard J. (2015) Abstract concepts made real: A pilot study examining pedagogical approaches in thermodynamics tutorials. In Oo, Amal & Patel, Arun (Eds.) Proceedings of the 26th Annual Conference of the Australasian Association for Engineering Education, School of Engineering, Deakin University, Geelong, Vic.



Thermodynamics is a core concept for mechanical engineers yet notoriously difficult. Evidence suggests students struggle to understand and apply the core fundamental concepts of thermodynamics with analysis indicating a problem with student learning/engagement. A contributing factor is that thermodynamics is a ‘science involving concepts based on experiments’ (Mayhew 1990) with subject matter that cannot be completely defined a priori. To succeed, students must engage in a deep-holistic approach while taking ownership of their learning. The difficulty in achieving this often manifests itself in students ‘not getting’ the principles and declaring thermodynamics ‘hard’.


Traditionally, students practice and “learn” the application of thermodynamics in their tutorials, however these do not consider prior conceptions (Holman & Pilling 2004). As ‘hands on’ learning is the desired outcome of tutorials it is pertinent to study methods of improving their efficacy. Within the Australian context, the format of thermodynamics tutorials has remained relatively unchanged over the decades, relying anecdotally on a primarily didactic pedagogical approach. Such approaches are not conducive to deep learning (Ramsden 2003) with students often disengaged from the learning process. Evidence suggests (Haglund & Jeppsson 2012), however, that a deeper level and ownership of learning can be achieved using a more constructivist approach for example through self generated analogies. This pilot study aimed to collect data to support the hypothesis that the ‘difficulty’ of thermodynamics is associated with the pedagogical approach of tutorials rather than actual difficulty in subject content or deficiency in students.


Successful application of thermodynamic principles requires solid knowledge of the core concepts. Typically, tutorial sessions guide students in this application. However, a lack of deep and comprehensive understanding can lead to student confusion in the applications resulting in the learning of the ‘process’ of application without understanding ‘why’. The aim of this study was to gain empirical data on student learning of both concepts and application, within thermodynamic tutorials. The approach taken for data collection and analysis was:

  • 1 Four concurrent tutorial streams were timetabled to examine student engagement/learning in traditional ‘didactic’ (3 weeks) and non-traditional (3 weeks). In each week, two of the selected four sessions were traditional and two non-traditional. This provided a control group for each week.

  • 2 The non-traditional tutorials involved activities designed to promote student-centered deep learning. Specific pedagogies employed were: self-generated analogies, constructivist, peer-to-peer learning, inquiry based learning, ownership of learning and active learning.

  • 3 After a three-week period, teaching styles of the selected groups was switched, to allow each group to experience both approaches with the same tutor. This also acted to mimimise any influence of tutor personality / style on the data.

  • 4 At the conclusion of the trial participants completed a ‘5 minute essay’ on how they liked the sessions, a small questionnaire, modelled on the modified (Christo & Hoang, 2013)SPQ designed by Biggs (1987) and a small formative quiz to gauge the level of learning achieved.


Preliminary results indicate that overall students respond positively to in class demonstrations (inquiry based learning), and active learning activities. Within the active learning exercises, the current data suggests students preferred individual rather than group or peer-to-peer activities. Preliminary results from the open-ended questions such as “What did you like most/least about this tutorial” and “do you have other comments on how this tutorial could better facilitate your learning”, however, indicated polarising views on the nontraditional tutorial. Some student’s responded that they really like the format and emphasis on understanding the concepts, while others were very vocal that that ‘hated’ the style and just wanted the solutions to be presented by the tutor.


Preliminary results indicated a mixed, but overall positive response by students with more collaborative tutorials employing tasks promoting inquiry based, peer-to-peer, active, and ownership of learning activities. Preliminary results from student feedback supports evidence that students learn differently, and running tutorials focusing on only one pedagogical approached (typically didactic) may not be beneficial to all students. Further, preliminary data suggests that the learning / teaching style of both students and tutor are important to promoting deep learning in students. Data collection is still ongoing and scheduled for completion at the end of First Semester (Australian academic calendar). The final paper will examine in more detail the results and analysis of this project.

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ID Code: 91515
Item Type: Conference Paper
Refereed: Yes
Additional Information: This publication resulted from a QUT L&T Grant funding.
Keywords: thermodynamics, mechanical engineering, tutorials, HERN
ISBN: 9780730000419
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > ENGINEERING (090000) > MECHANICAL ENGINEERING (091300) > Energy Generation Conversion and Storage Engineering (091305)
Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > ENGINEERING (090000) > OTHER ENGINEERING (099900)
Divisions: Current > Schools > School of Chemistry, Physics & Mechanical Engineering
Current > Schools > School of Earth, Environmental & Biological Sciences
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Science & Engineering Faculty
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2015 Australasian Association for Engineering Education
Copyright Statement: These proceedings are copyright. Apart from fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any process without the written permission of AAEE. Responsibility for the contents of the articles rests upon the authors and not the publisher. Data presented and conclusions drawn by the authors are for information only and not for use without independent substantiating investigations on the part of the potential user.
Deposited On: 04 Jan 2016 02:05
Last Modified: 06 Jan 2016 08:32

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