An investigation of introductory physics students’
approaches to problem solving
Laura N Walsh*, Robert G. Howard, Brian Bowe
Phenomenography was chosen as the strategy of inquiry or methodology
with which to answer the research questions involved in this study
(Entwistle 1997: Marton
1981, 1986, 1994; Booth 1997;
Marton and Booth 1997; Marton
and Saljo 1997; Bowden et al.
1992; Prosser and Trigwell
1999; Wihlborg 2004).
It has become a popular methodology in education research as it
aims to understand the various ways in which different people experience,
perceive or understand the same phenomenon. Unlike other methodologies
its foundations are in educational research where it evolved out
of the desire to understand why some students were better learners
than others. Although the relationship between phenomenology (Arons
1982) and phenomenography has been regarded as unclear (Hasselgren
and Beach 1997), and phenomenography is sometimes seen as a
subset of phenomenology, it did not in fact emerge or derive from
phenomenology (Uljens 1996).
To take a phenomenological approach is to step back from ordinary
assumptions regarding things and to describe the phenomena of experience
as they appear rather than attempt to explain why they appear that
way. Phenomenography, however, aims to find out the qualitatively
different ways of experiencing or thinking about some phenomena
(Marton 1994). This approach
assumes that there are a limited number of qualitatively different
ways in which different people can experience a phenomenon.
Different people will not experience a given phenomenon in the
same way. Rather, there will be a variety of ways in which people
experience or understand that phenomenon. The researcher seeks to
identify the multiple conceptions, or meanings, that a particular
group of people has for a particular phenomenon or a number of phenomena.
Thus, the objects of study in phenomenographic research are the
qualitatively different ways in which people experience or make
sense of different phenomena in the world around them. The outcome
of phenomenographic research is therefore a list, or description,
of the qualitative variation in the ways the sample participants
(e.g. students) experience, interpret, understand, perceive or conceptualise
an object of study, a phenomenon, a concept or an activity (e.g.
the study of physics) (Marton
1986). The ordered and related set of categories or descriptions
is called the ‘outcome space’ of the concept being studied.
However, it is more than just identifying these conceptions and
outcomes spaces, phenomenography also involves looking at their
underlying meanings, the relationship between them and the implications
in a given context.
From this theoretical stance, it is irrelevant if these conceptions
are considered ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’
by current standards. The aim is simply to elucidate the different
possible conceptions that people have for a given phenomenon. The
analysis involves identifying the conceptions and looking for their
underlying meanings and the relationship between them (Entwistle
1997). Although it is appropriate to answer the research questions
of this study using a phenomenographic approach, it is not a ‘pure’
phenomenographic approach. Marton
(1986: 38) suggests that the concepts under study are mostly
‘phenomena confronted by subjects in everyday life rather
than in course material studied in school’. Pure phenomenography
is not appropriate as the aim of the research is to provide information
on students’ understanding in order to use the outcomes in
the context of learning and teaching. Therefore, a variation of
phenomenography is used called ‘developmental phenomenography’
(Bowden 1995). Bowden and his
research group have carried out a number of investigations into
student learning in physics using a developmental phenomenographic
approach (Dall’Alba et al.
1993; Walsh et al. 1993;
Ramsden et al. 1993). For
instance, Bowden et al. (1992)
used this research methodology to investigate students’ understanding
of displacement, velocity and frames of reference. The research
found that student responses to qualitative and quantitative problems
could be categorised according to the variation in the responses.
Sharma et al. (2005) also adopted
a phenomenographic methodology to describe the variations in the
way in which students understood the concept of gravity. Therefore,
this methodology and the methods used and developed by these researchers
were adopted to undertake the research presented here.