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IES Grant

Title: Conceptual Analysis and Student Learning in Physics
Center: NCER Year: 2007
Principal Investigator: Ross, Brian Awardee: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Program: Cognition and Student Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years Award Amount: $1,203,164
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305B070085
Description:

Purpose: Cognitive psychologists have discovered that experts in a field and novices understand content and approach problem solving in that field in different ways. For example, expert physicists and physics students view the organizational structure of physics content in very different ways. To physicists, the beauty of physics lies in its hierarchical nature—a few general principles that can be applied to solve problems across a variety of contexts. Students, however, generally focus on learning equations that apply to specific types of problems, rather than on learning the underlying concepts from which the equations are derived. This research team argues that most beginning physics instruction targets learning how to solve problems and limits students' conceptual understanding, retention, and ability to advance to more complex materials.

The purpose of this project is to develop and test an easy-to-implement intervention for physics instruction that helps students perform conceptual analyses and prepares them for future learning in the domain. The objective is to gain a better understanding of how physics instruction influences conceptual understanding and problem solving, and to find a means of improving conceptual analysis in the physics classroom.

Project Activities: The researchers present a means of conceptual analysis that can be incorporated into classroom settings with only modest adaptation of the curriculum. When completing problem sets, students are asked to write out the strategies they intend to use to solve a problem, prior to actually solving the problem. This instructional approach requires that students draw on their conceptual understanding of a problem prior to solving the problem. The researchers examine the effects of the intervention on problem solving and conceptual understanding, including transfer to real-world situations. Finally, the researchers evaluate long-term retention three months later. Initial studies contrast the usual equation-based problem solving instruction with one that focuses on conceptual analysis. Later studies examine the impact of the intervention on future learning in physics.

Products: The outcomes of this research include the refinement and evaluation of a problem solving intervention in physics, and the development and evaluation of a set of dependent measures for assessing student learning in physics. Published reports of this research will also be available.

Structured Abstract

Purpose: The purpose of this project is to develop and test an easy-to-implement intervention for physics instruction that helps students perform conceptual analyses and prepares them for future learning in the domain.

Setting: The research will be conducted in Illinois.

Population: The interventions will be conducted using two different groups: students from a local high school, including all the students taking honors physics that year (approximately 60), as well as 230 college students enrolled in introductory mechanics. A subset of these students will be identified as at-risk of doing poorly in physics. Of these at-risk students, 30-35 percent are women, and 25-30 percent are minorities. In addition, the intervention will be conducted in sections of an introductory mechanics course at a university. Approximately 18 percent of the students are women, and 7 percent are minorities.

Intervention: Conceptual problem solving is an intervention that contrasts with the usual instruction in the control group, herein referred to as equation problem solving. The conceptual and equation groups will both solve problems and receive worked-out examples involving three conservation laws. The conceptual treatment will consist of having students focus on conceptual aspects of problem solving by first training them to write strategies for solving problems prior to executing the strategies with equations. In the first training session, students in the conceptual group will be provided with a definition of strategy, asked to write a strategy for a fairly simple problem (a block sliding down a frictionless curved ramp), and then asked to execute the strategy by writing a two-column solution, the right-hand column containing the relevant equations in the solution and the left-hand column describing what portions of the strategy are being implemented. The researchers expect that students will initially flounder and be unable to write strategies since integration of conceptual knowledge in problem solving is not taught in typical courses. After they have attempted to write and execute the initial strategy, the researchers will provide a model strategy and accompanying solution for them to learn from. The researchers will then ask students to generate another strategy and accompanying solution for a problem sharing the same conceptual structure but differing in surface features. The researchers will continue with this protocol, challenging students to improve their strategy writing and executed solutions.

Research Designs and Methods: The research methods include exploratory qualitative analyses, laboratory studies, and classroom studies, in which the researchers build from protocol studies, through short experimental studies in the laboratory, to a longer classroom intervention. The final study combines these ideas to empirically examine a classroom intervention over a much longer time period, again with long-term retention tests. Participating university students will be recruited by random sampling and paid for their participation.

Control Condition: The control condition will be the usual equation problem-solving methods taught in physics classes at present.

Key Measures: The researchers will assess a number of areas, including problem-solving, categorization, and learning transfer that will allow a more complete understanding of what students have learned and to what situations that knowledge transferred. These experimenter-developed assessments include a range of problems, including some which ask students to match problem objects to formula equations, and others which ask students to recognize how physics concepts apply in real-world applications.

Data Analytic Strategy: The researchers will conduct quantitative analyses that consist of analyses of variance on each of the dependent measures.

Publications

Book chapter

Mestre, J.P., Docktor, J.L., Strand, N.E., and Ross, B.H. (2011). Conceptual Problem Solving in Physics. In J.P. Mestre, and B.H. Ross (Eds.), Cognition in Education, Volume 55 Psychology of Learning and Motivation (pp. 269–296). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Mestre, J.P., Ross, B.H., Brookes, D.T., Smith, A.D., and Nokes, T.J. (2009). How Cognitive Science Can Promote Conceptual Understanding in Science Classrooms. In I.M. Saleh, and M.S. Khine (Eds.), Fostering Scientific Habits of Mind: Pedagogical Knowledge and Best Practices in Science Education (pp. 145–171). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Nokes, T.J., and Belenky, D.M. (2011). Incorporating Motivation into a Theoretical Framework for Knowledge Transfer. In J.P. Mestre, and B.H. Ross (Eds.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Volume 55: Cognition in Education (pp. 109–135). San Diego: Elsevier Academic Press.

Book chapter, edition specified

Nokes, T.J., Schunn, C.D., and Chi, M.T.H. (2010). Problem Solving and Human Expertise. In B. McGraw, P. Peterson, and E. Baker (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education (3rd ed., pp. 265–272). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Brookes, D.T., Ross, B.H., and Mestre, J.P. (2011). Specificity, Transfer, and the Development of Expertise. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 7(1): 010105.

Docktor, J.L., Mestre, J.P., and Ross, B.H. (2012). Impact of a Short Intervention on Novices' Categorization Criteria. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 8(2): 020102-1-020102-11.

Docktor, J.L., Strand, N.E., Mestre, J.P., and Ross, B.H. (2015). Conceptual Problem Solving in High School Physics. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 11(2): 020106-1-020106-13.

Nokes-Malach, T.J., and Mestre, J.P. (2013). Toward a Model of Transfer as Sense-Making. Educational Psychologist, 48(3): 184–207.

Smith, A.D., Mestre, J.P., and Ross, B.H. (2010). Eye-gaze Patterns as Students Study Worked-Out Examples in Mechanics. Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research, 6(2): 020118-1-020118-9.

Proceedings

Brookes, D.T., Ross, B.H., and Mestre, J.P. (2008). The Specificity Effect: An Example From Refraction. In C. Henderson, M. Sabella and L. Hsu (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2008 Physics Education Research Conference (pp. 83–86). Melville, NY: American Institute of Physics.

Docktor, J.L., Strand, N.E., Mestre, J.P., and Ross, B.H. (2010). A Conceptual Approach to Physics Problem Solving. In C. Singh, M. Sabella and S. Rebello (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2010 Physics Education Research Conference, Volume 1289 (pp. 137–140). Melville, NY: American Institute of Physics. Ross, B.H. (2007). Cognitive Science: Problem Solving and Learning In Physics Education. In L. Hsu, C. Henderson and L. Mccullough (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2007 Physics Education Research Conference, Volume 951 (pp. 11–14). Melville, NY: American Institute Of Physics.

Strand, N.E., Docktor, J.L., Gladding, G.E., Mestre, J.P., and Ross, B.H. (2010). Design of a Synthesizing Lecture on Mechanics Concepts. In C. Singh, M. Sabella and S. Rebello (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2010 Physics Education Research Conference (pp. 313–316). Melville, NY: American Institute of Physics.


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