2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

Integration of VHDL Simulations and Written Reflections to Improve Student Understanding of Sequential Logic Circuits

Presented at Digital Circuits, Architecture, Embedded Systems

Reflection is known to be a valuable tool that can enhance student learning. Although the benefits of self-reflection are well-known, it is under-utilized in engineering education. Thus, there is a growing body of research on how to promote and deploy reflective activities in the engineering classroom.

One recent development is the integration of computer-aided simulation tools and written reflections. Computer-aided simulation tools provide students with the ability to predict the behaviors of complex systems without having to concern themselves with every single detail of the problem at hand. Thus, in problem-solving scenarios where complex math and extended analyses are often required, students can rapidly explore alternative designs and evaluate the results of parameter changes with minimal effort. This tool can lower the barrier for reflection, as students can be encouraged to reflect on easily generated simulation results. This technique was initially developed in the context of a sophomore-level electrical engineering course on microelectronics and shown to be an effective technique to drive metacognitive thinking.

While simulation-guided reflections were originally developed for improving student understanding of nonlinear, analog circuit devices (e.g. transistors), it was later extended to the domain of digital logic circuits. Digital logic circuits can be modeled using Hardware Description Languages and logic simulators. Therefore, a similar feedback loop involving problem solving, simulation, reflection, re-analysis, can be deployed in digital circuits courses.

In this work, simulation-guided written reflections are used to enhance student understanding of sequential logic circuits. Sequential logic circuits are challenging for students to understand as they not only require knowledge circuit operation, but also how the state history of these circuits evolve over time. In this study, students are given an examination and then asked to critically evaluate their responses using just a logic simulator, without knowledge of their actual performance on the exam. Students are then asked to write reflections on the experience.

The impact of this reflection process on student learning and behaviors is assessed using a variety of measures. In addition to student surveys, written reflections are content-analyzed, categorized for breadth and depth and results are compared to similar attempts. Furthermore, student performance on exams is looked at to see what effects simulation-based reflections have on student understanding of sequential logic circuits. Finally, lessons learned, and instructor recommendations are provided.

  1. Dr. Renee M. Clark University of Pittsburgh [biography]
  2. Gaoxiang Zhou University of Pittsburgh
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