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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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Research approach

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.

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