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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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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.

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