University of Maryland Physics Education Research Group


UMD PERG PhD Dissertations: Mel S. Sabella

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Using the Context of Physics Problem Solving to Evaluate the Coherence of Student Knowledge

Mel S. Sabella, Doctor of Philosophy, 1999

Dissertation directed by: Professor Edward F. Redish, Department of Physics


We use the context of problem solving to show that students exhibit a local coherence but not global coherence in their physics knowledge. When presented with a problem-solving task, students often activate a coherent set of knowledge called a schema to solve the problem. This schema of strongly related knowledge and procedures. Although the schemas students develop in the physics course are usually sufficient in the class, they are often insufficient for solving complex problems. Complex problems require that students have a deep understanding where they have integrated their qualitative knowledge with their quantitative knowledge and have integrated related physics topics. We show that our students activate schemas consisting of small amounts of knowledge and these schemas are often isolated from other schemas.

Physics Education Research (PER) has shown that students in introductory physics lack a deep understanding of physics principles and concepts. Through research-based curricula, conceptual understanding can be improved. In addition PER has shown that these students can be taught problem solving skills through a modified curriculum. Despite these improvements, students still have difficulty developing a coherent knowledge of physics. In particular, students often have difficulty connecting related physics concepts. In addition, they view quantitative problems and qualitative questions as distinct types of tasks, possessing different types of knowledge and different sets of rules for responding.

We discuss some possible methods that physics instructors and physics education researchers can use to examine coherence in student knowledge. Using these methods, we provide evidence for the local coherence in student physics knowledge by identifying distinct schemas for qualitative and quantitative knowledge. After identifying some of these difficulties in student understanding, we look at how students are connecting their qualitative knowledge to quantitative knowledge after going through concept-based curriculum. The research benefits as well as shortcomings in the concept-based curriculum and talk about possible modifications that may foster coherence. In addition, we compare performance on quantitative questions between a physics class using the traditional problem-solving recitation and a class using Tutorials in Introductory Physics on quantitative problems.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Introduction and Background
Chapter 2 Schema Theory and Previous Research on Student Problem-Solving
Chapter 3 Background, Methods, and Context
Chapter 4 Using Context to Probe for Coherence within Physics Topics
Chapter 5 Using Complex Problems to Evaluate Coherence in Physics Understanding
Chapter 6
Using Complex Problems to Evaluate Coherence in Qualitative and Quantitative Knowledge
Chapter 7
How does Conceptual Instruction Affect Coherence Between Qualitative and Quantitative Knowledge
Chapter 8
Student Performance on Quantitative Exam Problems in Two Instructional Modes
Chapter 9
Summary and Speculations for the Future


Appendix A Selecting Bridging Problems
Appendix B Selecting Problem Solving Tutorials
Appendix C Full Transcripts of the Interviews Used in the Dissertation: Advanced Students
Appendix D Full Transripts of the Interviews Used in the Dissertation: Undergraduate Students
Appendix E* The Force Concept Inventory
*Contact M. Sabella for information on this section.

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Last modified 9 October 2001