An Inventory to Assess Students' Knowledge of Second Law Concepts Conference Paper uri icon


  • Concept inventories are tools to help instructors and students assess student knowledge and retention of important concepts for various disciplines of study. In thermodynamics, several concept inventories exist that center on energy, heat transfer, and temperature principles; the authors were not able to find, however, a concept inventory centered solely on second law concepts. A second law concept inventory is important since the interaction of entropy and energy is an important skill for students to have when pursuing design and development of advanced energy conversion technology. In addition to the seemingly non-existence of a second law concept inventory centered on engineering thermodynamic applications and the importance of having equal strengths of knowledge in first and second law concepts, the development of the concept inventory is also motivated by the need to assess a redesign of the first thermodynamics course for engineers that aims to increase the learning and retention of second law concepts. The objective of this study is to develop a second law concept inventory and assess the effectiveness of the concept inventory in terms of its robustness and clarity. The article describes the early stages of development and preliminary testing of an inventory to assess students' learning and retention of second law concepts (including ideas of entropy, reversibility, impossibility, and specific topics including Kelvin-Planck and Clausius statements, heat engines, heat pumps, and Carnot cycles). The article describes the concept inventory and assesses its effectiveness by evaluating student responses (both the correctness of the students' responses as well as their assessment on the clarity of the question). The concept inventory was administered to a diverse group of students, in terms of curriculum, with some students not having had thermodynamics before, some students having only the first thermodynamics course before, and graduate students (with presumably at least one course of thermodynamics). In general, the concept inventory seems to capture the relevant second law concepts for a first thermodynamics course. Improvements to the wording of some of the multiple choice questions (and their responses) have been identified for future versions of this concept inventory. In a separate activity, attempts to assess the clarity of the individual questions were found not to be effective. This finding is based on the poor correlation between the students' responses regarding clarity, and the students' class groups. American Society for Engineering Education, 2014.

published proceedings


author list (cited authors)

  • Jacobs, T. J., & Caton, J. A.

complete list of authors

  • Jacobs, Timothy J||Caton, Jerald A

publication date

  • January 2014