An investigation of introductory physics students’
approaches to problem solving
Laura N Walsh*, Robert G. Howard, Brian Bowe
Conclusions and implications for further research
This paper has outlined phenomenographic research describing students’
various approaches to solving physics problems, through the preliminary
analysis and interpretation of interview data with 22 introductory
students. The hierarchical approaches are represented by an outcome
space which consists of four main categories: scientific approach,
plug-and-chug approach, memory-based approach and no clear approach.
The plug-and-chug category was clearly split into two sub-categories:
structured and unstructured. The result of this study shows that
the majority of students who begin higher-level education do not
approach problem solving in a strategic or scientific manner. Most
of the students in the study used a plug-and-chug approach by identifying
variables and trying to find some formula, whether appropriate or
not. This implies that traditional education may not be encouraging
students to develop as adept problem solvers.
Ongoing research in this area involves further rigorous phenomenographic
analysis in order to fully develop the categories of description.
It also involves investigating how the students’ conceptual
knowledge affects their ability and approach to problem solving.
Another aspect of the study will involve examining students’
approaches to problem solving as they progress through their undergraduate
careers. Perhaps as their conceptual framework becomes more coherent
their approach will become more scientific.
Also during the course of the present study the pedagogical delivery
of the physics material was not taken into consideration, and further
research will examine the development of both conceptual knowledge
and problem-solving skills within the different learning environments
in which students learn physics. In addition, these studies will
inherently inform the pedagogical processes that will support the
development of problem-solving skills and encourage students to
more towards the highest category of scientist.