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Some Implications From Physics Education Research For Teaching Problem Solving In General Physics

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Physics Education Research (PER) Relevant for Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.1092.1 - 13.1092.16



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Paper Authors

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David Maloney Indiana University Purdue University, Fort Wayne (Eng)

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Some Implications from Physics Education Research for Teaching Problem Solving in General Physics


Traditionally one of the major goals of general physics courses is to help students develop problem solving skills. But while this goal is widely acknowledged by instructors for these courses, what they mean by it is seldom explicitly identified. Often instructors assume that everyone understands that the process of having students solve the “problems” found at the ends of the chapters of traditional physics books will promote student learning of both “the physics” and of problems solving skills. Physics education research over the last 25-30 years has called these assumptions into question.

With regard to learning “the physics” (developing a deep conceptual understanding of the concepts, principles and relations) the evidence is clear that traditional instruction, including having students work the typical word “problems” found in physics texts, is unproductive, perhaps even counter-productive1-3. In other words, students can learn to solve such tasks mechanically, but they are not solving these “problems” with understanding. However, even if we acknowledge this outcome, don’t these “problems” help students learn problem-solving skills?

Answering this question requires defining what is meant by a problem and identifying what problem-solving skills we want the students to learn. In general physics courses “problem” often means the verbally-described situations for which students are to find specific numerical values of explicitly identified quantities, i.e., end-of-the-chapter numerical exercises (EOCNE’s). And in most cases these tasks are written so that they contain just the information needed to be able to apply a specific relation—equation—to the given quantities to calculate the unknown quantity. But, as one research study4 reports:

“However, our findings, as well as those from other studies (Larkin, 1981, 1983; Larkin, 1980b; Simon & Simon, 1978; Sweller, 1988), suggest that student-directed problem-solving activities not only encourage the development of formulaic approaches to problem solving, but also are inefficient for promoting desirable problem-solving strategies.”

If we are really trying to help students develop robust/real world problem solving skills, is our current approach effective, or even useful? Let’s consider the question a different way. Johnstone5 has developed a categorization scheme for problem types based on data given, method to be used, and goal. The eight resulting problem types are:

Type Data Methods Goals/outcomes 1 Given Familiar Given 2 Given Unfamiliar Given 3 Incomplete Familiar Given

Maloney, D. (2008, June), Some Implications From Physics Education Research For Teaching Problem Solving In General Physics Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3589

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