The Role of Prior Knowledge in the Performance of Engineering Students

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date


Publication Title

ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings


IEEE Xplore

Publisher Location

Manhattan, New York


In engineering, students' completion of prerequisites indicates an understanding of fundamental knowledge. Recent studies have shown a significant relationship between students' course performance and their prior knowledge. Weak knowledge retention from prerequisite coursework can present challenges in progressive learning. This study investigates the relationship between prior knowledge and student performance with a focus on 1) levels of preparedness, 2) perception of preparedness in subjective and objective metrics, and 3) their potential impact on performance. More specifically, the study places students into three groups based on their levels of preparedness from prior knowledge and identifies how these different student groups perform in a Statics Engineering Mechanics course. Statics is considered the subject of interest since it is an introductory engineering course upon which many subsequent analysis and design courses rely. Two types of data (i.e., quantitative and qualitative) were collected to represent the students' preparedness levels. Quantitative preparedness data was collected through a quiz set taken in the first lecture of the course, while qualitative preparedness was collected by a survey. Students' performance was quantified through final course grades. One hundred and twenty nine students were grouped into three categories based on their prior knowledge: 1) 85% or higher score, 2) between 60% and 85%, and 3) 60% or lower. The statistical analysis revealed: 1) a moderately significant correlation between students' quantitative preparedness and course performance; 2) a clear limitation in performance of students from the low-preparedness group, such that none obtained a final score higher than 90; 3) a non-significant correlation between qualitative preparedness and final scores (p-value = 0.29); and 4) a non-significant correlation between qualitative preparedness and quantitative preparedness. The first two findings suggest a positive correlation between the preparedness and course performance. The last two suggest that the qualitative preparedness collected by a survey may not be accurate for various reasons, including students' under- or overestimate their preparedness; the time gap between when students acquired the prior knowledge and when they are subjectively assessed, and others. The study finds low-preparedness does not present a significant barrier to obtaining satisfactory performance, but limits academic excellence. It is useful for Civil Engineering instructors to understand the impact of students' previous knowledge on subsequent courses, as well as their academic excellence.


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