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The well-established approaches to energy in traditional introductory mechanics courses are often oversimplified or even erroneous. Unlike the traditional courses, Matter & Interactions (M&I) Modern Mechanics presents students a scientific view of energy by emphasizing the energy principle and the atomic nature of matter. Motivated by a great need for an appropriate assessment tool that matches the accurate approaches to energy as employed in the M&I mechanics course, this study carries out a valid and reliable energy assessment to evaluate student understanding of energy topics. This energy assessment is a 33-item multiple-choice test and is suitable for the M&I mechanics course or courses of similar content and approaches. In general, questions in the energy assessment test higher-level thinking yet involve only short reasoning processes. Students from different academic levels participated in completing the energy assessment. The majority participants are students from the M&I mechanics course who took both the pretest and posttest in the 2006 fall semester at North Carolina State University. Results from a series of quantitative analyses show that the M&I students performed significantly better in the posttest than in the pretest not only on the entire assessment, but also on most of the individual items and all the test objectives. Moreover, a small number of student interviews were conducted to probe student reasoning. Qualitative analyses of the student interviews indicate that students are able to use the energy principle correctly to tackle physics questions if they choose to start from the fundamental principles. Another aspect highlighted in the interviews is that students are capable of performing qualitative analysis without using exact formulas.
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