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An investigation of introductory physics students’ approaches to problem solving

Author - Laura N Walsh*, Robert G. Howard, Brian Bowe


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This paper outlines ongoing research investigating students’ approaches to quantitative and qualitative problem solving in physics. This is an empirical study, which was conducted using a phenomenographic approach to analyse and interpret data from individual semi-structured interviews with students from introductory physics courses. The result of the study thus far is a preliminary set of hierarchical categories that describe the students’ problem-solving approaches when faced with various physics problems. The findings from the research presented here indicate that many introductory students in higher education do not approach problem solving in a strategic manner and many do not try to link or use their physics knowledge in order to solve problems.


In recent years two of the most significant drivers leading to transformations in science education have been education research and changes in student profile. The changes in student profile stem from mass education, dramatic changes in information technology and the decline of student numbers in science education (Institute of Physics 2002). These factors have led science educators in higher education to not only take a critical look at what is being taught but also how this is being taught. Therefore in the last thirty years the importance and need for science education research has led to the development of many research groups and projects undertaken to get a better understanding of how students learn and how educators can help students learn and develop. Education research, where the emphasis is on theory and practice, had already shown the importance of student-centred and lifelong learning, which has led to a paradigm shift in higher education. Science education research, where the emphasis is on how students learn and develop understanding was largely ignored among science educators for many years. In 2001 the School of Physics in the Dublin Institute of Technology set up the Physics Education Research Group to carry out research to inform curriculum development, teaching and assessment practices.

    Physics education research of student understanding in physics indicates that certain naïve conceptions about the physical world are common among students entering higher-level education (Clement 1982; McDermott 1991; Hake 1998; Knight 2002; McDermott and Redish 1999). Research also shows there is often little or no change in conceptual understanding before and after formal instruction and that students are unable to apply the concepts that they have studied to the task of solving quantitative problems. It is widely accepted that physics graduates are required to be adept problem-solvers with the ability to conceptualise and transfer their understanding and knowledge, but research has shown that many students are not developing the necessary conceptual understanding (Van Heuvelen 1991). Some research has found that students cannot develop as problem-solvers without first having the conceptual understanding (Hake 1998; Knight 2002). This study set out to gain a better understanding of how students learn physics, and how their knowledge impacts on their ability to solve problems, and specifically to answer the following research questions.

What are the various different ways in which introductory physics students approach problem solving?
• How does conceptual knowledge affect their approach and ability in solving qualitative and quantitative problems?

This will in turn inform teaching and assessment practices in order to improve students’ learning and problem-solving abilities leading to better problem-solvers who can organise their knowledge in a coherent manner and transfer their understanding to solve ‘real world’ and more complex problems.