Higher-level learning in an electrical engineering linear systems course



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Kansas State University


Linear Systems (a.k.a., Signals and Systems) is an important class in an Electrical Engineering curriculum. A clear understanding of the topics in this course relies on a well-developed notion of lower-level mathematical constructs and procedures, including the roles these procedures play in system analysis. Students with an inadequate math foundation regularly struggle in this class, as they are typically able to perform sequences of the underlying calculations but cannot piece together the higher-level, conceptual relationships that drive these procedures. This dissertation describes an investigation to assess and improve students’ higher-level understanding of Linear Systems concepts. The focus is on the topics of (a) time-domain, linear time-invariant (LTI) system response visualization and (b) Fourier series conceptual understanding, including trigonometric Fourier series (TFS), compact trigonometric Fourier series (CTFS), and exponential Fourier series (EFS). Support data, including exam and online homework data, were collected since 2004 from students enrolled in ECE 512 - Linear Systems at Kansas State University. To assist with LTI response visualization, two online homework modules, Zero Input Response and Unit Impulse Response, were updated with enhanced plots of signal responses and placed in use starting with the Fall 2009 semester. To identify students’ conceptual weaknesses related to Fourier series and to help them achieve a better understanding of Fourier series concepts, teaching-learning interviews were applied between Spring 2010 and Fall 2012. A new concept-based online homework module was also introduced in Spring 2011. Selected final exam problems from 2007 to 2012 were analyzed, and these data were supplemented with detailed mid-term and final exam data from 77 students enrolled in the Spring 2010 and Spring 2011 semesters. In order to address these conceptual learning issues, two frameworks were applied: Bloom’s Taxonomy and APOS theory. The teaching-learning interviews and online module updates appeared to be effective treatments in terms of increasing students’ higher-level understanding. Scores on both conceptual exam questions and more traditional Fourier series exam questions were improved relative to scores received by students that did not receive those treatments.



Linear systems, Interviews, Online assignments, Conceptual understanding, APOS theory

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Doctor of Philosophy


Electrical and Computer Engineering

Major Professor

Steven Warren