Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Engineering and Science Education

Committee Chair/Advisor

Lisa Benson

Committee Member

Matthew Boyer

Committee Member

Eliza Gallagher

Committee Member

Adam Kirn

Committee Member

Matthew Voigt


This work investigates interactions between first-year engineering (FYE) student perceptions of Calculus exams, their perceptions of the future, and their levels of math test anxiety. All phases of this study were conducted at a very high research (R1) institution with a common FYE program and coordinated Calculus courses. An initial pilot study explored how FYE students perceive the purpose of taking Calculus exams and how math test anxiety may play a role in these students’ perceptions of exams and their future in engineering. A second pilot study expanded on these results concerning student perceptions of Calculus exams and math test anxiety levels by including a wider sample of FYE students. Additionally, this second pilot study quantitatively investigated the potential interactions between FYE students’ perceptions of Calculus exams and perceptions of their future in engineering. Finally, a fully integrated mixed-methods study was conducted to confirm and expand on the results found in the pilot studies. This mixed-methods study began with a sequential exploratory design to confirm how these FYE students perceive the purpose of taking Calculus exams followed by a sequential explanatory design to uncover the interactions between these perceptions of exams, perceptions of the future, and math test anxiety.

Results from the sequential exploratory phase show that FYE students perceive the purpose of taking Calculus exams in four ways: with a performance driven purpose, a future oriented purpose, an external purpose, or an adverse purpose. Later analysis extended our understanding of the performance driven purpose of exams to be two-fold: from a curricular or individual lens. The sequential explanatory phase of the study illustrated how FYE students perceive interactions between Calculus exams, their future, and math test anxiety. Students who viewed Calculus itself and Calculus exams with intrinsic relevancy to their future in engineering (endogenous perceived instrumentality), driven by the future oriented purpose and individually focused performance driven purpose, were found to be motivated to learn Calculus. Students who held this same endogenous perceived instrumentality of Calculus, an outcome focused instrumentality of Calculus exams (exogenous perceived instrumentality), driven by an external, negative, or curricular focused performance driven purpose, and who were able to separate the two were also motivated to learn Calculus. However, students who held an exogenous perceived instrumentality of both Calculus and Calculus exams experienced math test anxiety as an outcome, rather than a motivation to learn Calculus. Participants also attributed their feelings of math test anxiety to a contingent goal path that began with their Calculus exam grade, driving an externally focused perception of Calculus exams.

These findings support the notion that instructors should reflect on the design, weight, and language used surrounding their assessments as well as be explicit about the purposes of the assessments they give within their courses. Faculty and students both have various perceptions of what the purposes of assessment should be. Therefore, to ensure our assessments are meaningful, instructors should first decide what they believe the purposes of their assessments to be and what they value in regards to their students’ learning. Then, instructors should communicate these purposes and values clearly to their students. This would be one step forward to ensuring a course’s assessments point back to what is valued.


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