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Knowledge organization and activation in physics problem solving

Mel S. Sabella
Department of Chemistry and Physics, Chicago State University, Chicago, Illinois 60628
Edward F. Redish
Department of Physics, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20742
共Received 20 July 2004; accepted 11 May 2007兲
Conceptual knowledge is only one aspect of a good knowledge structure: how and when knowledge
is activated and used are also important. We explore knowledge organization in the context of the
resources model of student thinking via observations of student problem-solving behavior on a
mechanics task that integrates the concepts of force, motion, and energy. We document that both
introductory and advanced students may have knowledge structures with local coherences that may
inhibit their access to additional useful knowledge. These results suggest that instructors and
researchers need to pay increased attention to how and when students use what they know as well
as to what they know. © 2007 American Association of Physics Teachers.
关DOI: 10.1119/1.2746359兴

I. INTRODUCTION these studies, we work in a particular theoretical framework:

the resource model of student thinking. This model is based
Conceptual knowledge is an essential part of what stu- on mutually supporting evidence from neuroscience, cogni-
dents studying physics need to learn in order to solve prob- tive science, and the behavioral sciences, and it provides a
lems. They need to be able to make sense of what the prob- structure for discussing the phenomenology of student be-
lem is about, what the relevant physics is, and how to havior. In addition, the observations described here give tri-
interpret their results. In the past 20 years, physics education angulating support that the structures of the model hypoth-
researchers have learned much about students’ conceptual esized from abstract neural and cognitive studies can be
knowledge1 and have developed many curricular environ- useful in making sense of our observations of students func-
ments to improve it.2 However, conceptual knowledge is tioning in authentic learning situations.
only one part of what students need to know to solve physics In Sec. II we give a brief outline of the resource model
problems. They also need to know how and when to use that together with a description of how it relates to earlier work.
knowledge. We present in Sec. III the results of the observational inter-
In this paper we look at how students access and use their views with the advanced students and discuss the results of
knowledge in the context of solving a mechanics problem the experiment with the introductory engineering physics
that can be solved using either the concepts of force or en- students. In Sec. IV we consider the broader implications for
ergy or by integrating the two. We report on a study of six instruction and research suggested by our studies. Our con-
advanced physics students 共seniors and graduate students兲 clusions are given in Sec. V.
working individually on the problem in an interview context.
Then we report on a controlled experiment with approxi- II. A MODEL OF THINKING
mately 100 introductory engineering physics students using
two versions of the problem presented as an ungraded quiz. To make sense of how students think about topics in phys-
These studies support the conjecture that for both ad- ics it is useful to have a model of the way they think in
vanced and introductory students, local coherences in con- general. Much has been learned about how to model human
ceptual knowledge can inhibit access to other parts of their thought, but caution is needed in applying these research
knowledge that could have been useful. 共By “local coher- results to real-world situations. Results from neuroscience
ence” we mean that students see certain elements of their can be very fine grained and might not carry over to higher-
knowledge as closely related and working effectively to- level thinking. Results from cognitive science are often, even
gether.兲 We suggest that a lack of a broader coherence affects in the best cases, “zero-friction” experiments. They inform
students’ ability to integrate the concepts of force and energy. us about fundamental mechanisms, but can be overwhelmed
Our results suggest that both physics instructors and physics by other mental phenomena when imbedded in actual situa-
education researchers need to pay attention to more than a tions. For this reason, in creating our model of how students
student’s conceptual understanding. They also need to con- think about physics, we rely heavily on “triangulation”—
sider issues regarding the access and use of student knowl- convergent support for the elements of our model from neu-
edge structures. roscience 共to guarantee the plausibility of the mechanism兲,
To describe the motivation for and the implications of cognitive science 共to demonstrate the fundamental phenom-

1017 Am. J. Phys. 75 共11兲, November 2007 http://aapt.org/ajp © 2007 American Association of Physics Teachers 1017
enon兲, and behavioral sciences including education research ing in physics.11–13 We refer to the basic elements of knowl-
共to show that the principle is relevant in actual educational edge available to student thinking about a physics problem as
contexts兲. In the following we discuss some of the educa- resources.14 A resource is a basic cognitive network that rep-
tional research that supports the hypothesis that the elements resents an element of student knowledge or a set of knowl-
of the model are relevant for students in real learning envi- edge elements that the student tends to consistently activate
ronments and demonstrate the explanatory power of the together. Because different individuals may associate their
model in the context of physics learning at the university knowledge in different ways, different individuals may use
level. different levels of structure as resources. We use the term
resource when we want to emphasize that a particular bit of
knowledge is something a student can call on to solve a
A. The neuro/cognitive basis of cognition problem or draw a conclusion.
An example of a resource is the knowledge that what you
A model of cognition is emerging from results in neuro-
see in a mirror is an image of yourself. Another is that the
science and cognitive science.3–6 In this model, networks of
image you see is reversed. Other examples of resources are
connected neurons represent cognitive elements of knowl-
diSessa’s phenomenological primitives 共p-prims兲.15 These
edge and memory. When someone recalls or uses the knowl-
are basic statements about the functioning of the physical
edge represented by a particular network, the neurons of the
world that a user considers obvious and irreducible.16 An-
network are activated.7 Activation can be highly dynamic,
other example is “more cause leads to more effect” or “force
turning on and off in response to changing contexts, both
causes motion.”
external and internal. Particular knowledge elements tend to
Note that these resources are not right or wrong. To be
involve activation and interpretation of multiple sensory and
applied to a particular situation, they have to be mapped onto
interpretive structures and involve neurons in many parts of
physical variables. Thus, “force causes acceleration” is a cor-
the brain. The term “activate” here plays the role of the term
rectly applied resource, but “an unbalanced force is needed
“elicit” more commonly used in physics education research.
for there to be a velocity” is not. Note also that resources do
These networks arise from the building of associations
not necessarily represent a full-fledged conception. A con-
among neurons through synapse growth. The association of
ception 共or misconception兲 may arise from the activation of a
neurons can vary in strength and increases with repeated as-
collection of resources.
sociational activations. A network corresponding to an ele-
We argue that the critical issue in understanding student
ment of knowledge becomes robust through practice and ex-
thinking is how students’ resources are activated in a particu-
lar context by what stimuli and in what combinations. We
Because cognitive networks are extended in the brain and
use the term pattern of association to represent any set of
because neurons have large numbers of synapses with other
connections where activation of one or more resources leads
neurons, an individual neuron may be a part of multiple mu-
to the automatic activation 共with some probability and in
tually linked knowledge structures. As a result, the activation
some contexts兲 of other resources. We refer to a frequently or
of one network may result in the associated activation of
easily activated pattern of association as a knowledge struc-
other networks. Learning occurs as the result of the growth
ture. We use pattern of association and knowledge structure
of new synapses, changing the topology of existing
as our general terms rather than the more traditional term
networks.8 This view of learning is the neural analog of the
schema,17 because the former terms are more fluid and dy-
idea of constructivism that plays such an important role in
namic, in keeping with our overall neural-based model. We
education research.
hope that these terms will encourage our readers to interpret
Cognitive scientists have studied the formation of associa-
them as dynamic rather than as fixed objects. There have
tions in different contexts and done extensive studies of
been explicit proposals for how some knowledge structures
simple associations. For example, it has been demonstrated
in physics may be organized.18 We do not consider these
that in recalling lists of related words, subjects tend to re-
details of structure here.
member words that were not on the list as being there if the
words are canonical members of the group 共such as the word
doctor in a list of health and medical related terms兲.9 Collins C. Results from behavioral studies and educational
and Loftus model these kinds of experiments with “spread- phenomenology
ing activation”—the activation of related elements in a net-
work through a chain of links.10 However, these are classic There is a large literature on network models and the as-
zero-friction experiments that isolate the fundamental sociational analysis of thinking in behavioral science.19 Par-
mechanism through a series of carefully controlled and con- ticularly important sources for the theory of patterns of as-
strained situations and cues. To determine that these models sociation and knowledge structures are the expert-novice
from neuroscience and cognitive science have relevance for literature and the work of Rumelhart20 and Marshall.21
students in real situations, we have to turn to observations 共Rumelhart and Marshall both use the term “schema” in a
provided by behavioral studies and educational phenomenol- way that is approximately equivalent to our term “knowledge
ogy. structure.”兲 Rumelhart notes that one of the main activities
associated with a schema is determining whether it provides
the appropriate knowledge for dealing with a given
B. The resource model of cognition for physics education context.20
The particular knowledge structure that an individual ac-
The resource model of thinking provides a bridge between tivates depends on the cues that the individual receives and
the neuro-cognitive model described in Sec. II A and results how those cues are interpreted. In the studies that we will
from education research to provide a language for discussing discuss the cues come from a problem-solving task. Problem
and analyzing the phenomenology of student problem solv- solvers should be able to use the relevant characteristics of a

1018 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 75, No. 11, November 2007 Mel S. Sabella and Edward F. Redish 1018
problem to activate knowledge structures that help them
solve the problem. In other words, the issue is not whether an
instructor can provide an explicit cue to cause the student to
give the correct answer. The issue is how to help the student
learn to activate knowledge structures that respond to appro-
priate cues. For example, we might include the cues “action
and reaction” in a problem and obtain a correct Newton’s
third law response from most students. What we really want
is for the students to have a more expert response of activat-
ing Newton’s third law when confronted with the cue of any
two interacting objects, even when the code words are not
Depending on how information is interpreted by the indi-
vidual, cuing appropriate knowledge structures may be easy
or difficult, and cues that activate the appropriate knowledge Fig. 1. Representations of knowledge structures. The nodes represent de-
for an expert may not do so for a novice. For a student with clarative knowledge and procedural rules. The lines represent relations be-
fragile knowledge structures and weak links between distinct tween different nodes.
parts, cuing on a narrow specific bit of information may not
activate the appropriate knowledge. But, even if it does, our
study suggests that focusing on a local knowledge structure
may make it more difficult for the student to also activate
other useful and robust knowledge structures. edge structure is documented in several papers in the physics
A number of studies provide evidence that experts and education research literature. Reference 24 on work and the
novices encode 共interpret兲 information differently.22 This dif- first law of thermodynamics provides a particularly good ex-
ference may cause the expert and novice to activate different ample.
knowledge structures when presented with identical cues. In Some links in an individual’s knowledge structures are
order for a knowledge structure to be useful to problem solv- stronger than others. When a node is activated, it links to
ers, they must be able to map information from a new situ- nodes with stronger connections more often, making it pos-
ation or problem to an existing knowledge structure. sible for an individual to select appropriate associations be-
When instructors solve problems at the board, they want ginning from a particular node and not simply activate ev-
their students to develop powerful general knowledge struc- erything associated with it. In some cases, experts may not
tures for solving a range of similar problems. When students have more knowledge than novices 共though experts usually
see a problem solved at the board, they often develop spe- have more correct knowledge than novices25兲, but they make
cific narrow knowledge structures that they can apply only to better use of their knowledge because it is better organized.26
a particular problem and not to a class of problems. We refer Note that knowledge structures are a classification that we
to this application of knowledge as surface pattern matching. apply to describe an individual’s thought processes, not a
If the knowledge structures students develop are not flex- rigid structure in the brain. Individuals make many associa-
ible enough to adapt to different problem-solving situations, tions; for resources that have a reasonably high probability of
they may attempt to solve a new problem based on how a activating each other we identify the set as a knowledge
sample problem has been solved, even though the procedure structure. To be useful for problem solving, an individual’s
may be inappropriate. Although surface pattern matching is a knowledge structures must be coherent, reasonably com-
type of knowledge structure, it tends to be applicable only to plete, and accurate.
very specific situations and may not be productive for solv- In our interviews we use the speed with which one bit of
ing complex problems, unlike more dynamic and effective knowledge is produced following another bit as evidence of
knowledge structures. Students may attempt to memorize a an association. This connection is reasonable, because what
large set of surface pattern-matching-based knowledge struc- we mean by association is that one idea leads easily to an-
tures, which may be both more difficult and more volatile other. It is also consistent with the spreading activation
than learning a more flexible and powerful knowledge struc- model10 and the use of time delays to measure associational
ture that is adaptable to many problems. strength in cognitive science experiments.6
For a knowledge structure to be useful in problem solving, The way in which knowledge is encoded and linked leads
its components must be linked and not just exist as isolated to different types of coherences among knowledge elements
facts and pieces of knowledge. Marshall represents knowl- and structures. To describe the nature of the coherence, Mar-
edge structures as graphs containing nodes and links from shall introduced the ideas of internal and external consis-
node to node.23 The nodes represent knowledge resources— tency. 共See Ref. 21.兲 By internal consistency, she means that
declarative facts and procedural rules. Lines connecting a particular knowledge structure is self-consistent, that is,
nodes represent links or associations among facts and rules. running it in different ways does not lead to contradictions.
Implicit in the representation is a cuing context and probabil- By external consistency, she means that different knowledge
ity weightings for each of the links. Figure 1 shows three structures 共schemas or models, in her terminology兲 do not
sample knowledge structures. Figure 1共a兲 is partially linked, lead to contradictions when activated. Experts’ knowledge
Fig. 1共b兲 is completely linked, and Fig. 1共c兲 contains weakly structures are more often composed of bundles of knowledge
linked substructures. Novices often have partially linked about the physical world that are both internally and exter-
knowledge structures, resulting in their using a variety of nally consistent. In contrast, the novice may have knowledge
distinct, surface 共and perhaps contradictory兲 principles in- structures composed of pieces of inconsistent knowledge, as
stead of a deeper and more consistent set. This linked knowl- viewed by the expert.

1019 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 75, No. 11, November 2007 Mel S. Sabella and Edward F. Redish 1019
For our study we want to focus on the access and activa-
tion of patterns of association rather than on correctness as
evaluated by an expert. We, therefore, introduce the terms
local and global coherence. We call a knowledge structure
locally coherent if the user sees the elements of that knowl-
edge as closely related and appropriate for use with each
other. Knowledge is globally coherent if users consider sets
of locally coherent knowledge structures that they under-
stand as distinct as appropriate to the problem and useful
together. For example, in Fig. 1共c兲 the upper and lower clus-
ters of nodes represent locally coherent knowledge structures
that are distantly related. If both were appropriate to the
problem at hand and the user used both, we would call this
use an example of global coherence.
This view of knowledge structure is dynamic and can
evolve as the user learns more. Thus, if users can use their
various bits of knowledge of force and dynamics together in
a related way, we say that their knowledge is locally coher-
ent. Similarly, their knowledge of the concepts of energy and
work may be locally coherent. If they can use these two sets
of knowledge together in a consistent way but still see them
as distinct knowledge elements, we say their knowledge of
forces and energy are globally coherent. As a user becomes
more expert, what is seen as local or global may change. An
expert may have a fully integrated knowledge structure in
which energy and dynamics are tightly intertwined and to-
gether form a locally coherent knowledge structure.


We have carried out studies in which we find experimental
support for these theories. We began our investigations by
formulating a problem that allows us to explore how well
students integrate their force/dynamics knowledge with their
energy/work knowledge. The original version was written by
Sabella and given to undergraduate students in first semester
calculus-based physics at the University of Maryland as a Fig. 2. Revised version of the hand-block problem with a model solution.
This problem was asked in an interview with advanced students and as an
supplemental homework problem and to a small group in
ungraded quiz in the introductory mechanics class.
exploratory semi-structured one-on-one interviews. The re-
sults of these observations suggested that students were hav-
ing trouble integrating their knowledge of force and energy.
As a result of what we learned, we revised the problem and the University of Maryland as a problem-solving interview.
did two further studies. A model solution to this problem would involve the applica-
In our first study we gave the revised problem in a semi- tion of principles of force and energy and what we might call
structured one-on-one interview to six advanced physics stu- a globally coherent knowledge structure. In particular, we
dents 共senior physics majors and graduate students兲. The re- would like to see the students relating the work-energy theo-
sults demonstrated that some students had locally coherent rem to their knowledge of force. The students were given the
force/dynamics knowledge that excluded significant linkage short version of the question, consisting of parts 共a兲 and 共d兲.
to their work/energy knowledge. To determine the extent to The complete problem was given to one of the students after
which this phenomenon was present in our population of he had difficulty solving the shortened version.
introductory physics students, we did a second study. In the In these interviews the researcher provided a student with
latter we looked at the way undergraduate students in the a paper copy of the problem and asked the student to solve it
engineering physics course performed on two variants of the while verbally explaining what he or she was thinking and
revised problem that we presented to the advanced students. writing as the solution progressed.27
Both variants of the revised problem are shown in Fig. 2 The volunteer participants in this study were one upper-
along with a model solution. The undergraduate students had level undergraduate student who was enrolled in graduate
received traditional lecture instruction combined with tradi- level classes, three first-year graduate students, and two
tional problem solving recitations before being given the second-year graduate students. The three first-year graduate
problem as an ungraded quiz. students exhibited many qualitative difficulties when answer-
ing the question, and the two second-year graduate and the
A. Study 1: Advanced students upper-level undergraduate students answered the question
correctly, with little or no prompting. The undergraduate stu-
We presented the dynamics-work and energy problem dent seemed to exhibit the most globally coherent knowl-
shown in Fig. 2 to six students enrolled in graduate classes at edge. He continuously went back and forth between force

1020 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 75, No. 11, November 2007 Mel S. Sabella and Edward F. Redish 1020
and work-energy ideas. We present here a detailed analysis
of the interviews with four representative students: one who
displayed a globally coherent knowledge structure contain-
ing both dynamics and energy 共Mark兲, one who showed a
locally coherent knowledge structure of dynamics 共John兲,
and two who displayed a restrictive local coherence 共Tom
and Dee-Dee兲.
The transcript excerpts given here include a gender spe-
cific code name for the student and use the following short-
hand notation: 关 兴 indicate comments added about the inter-
view by the researcher after the fact, 兵—其 is a short pause,
关pause兴 is a long pause, 兵…其 indicates that unimportant
words were purposely omitted from the transcript to facili-
tate the reading, and 共IA兲 indicates that the words were in-
Mark is an upper-level undergraduate. He successfully in-
tegrated the concepts of force and energy into a globally Fig. 3. Mark’s reasoning map showing that he was able to go back and forth
coherent knowledge structure that he used to solve the prob- between his knowledge structures for force-dynamics and work-energy.
Lightly shades comments relate to force-dynamics knowledge while those
lem. In this section of the interview, Mark is looking for the
that are more darkly shaded relate to work-energy knowledge.
coefficient of kinetic friction. He has already drawn a correct
free-body diagram.

M: “Let’s see—the block travels an equal distance

M: “Because it started at rest and it ends at rest—I
共IA兲 with the force remaining constant—Let’s
suppose. I assume that is what it means when it
see—共IA兲—let me think—does it say anything
travels an equal distance—…关Rereads part of the
about the speed—it doesn’t—oh okay I see—I sup-
question.兴 So the force is 4 Newtons, which is
pose the force is being applied until the end of the
equal to the magnitude of the normal force times
trajectory and the block stops due to the friction
␮—the kinetic friction coefficient—…so the nor-
and not that the hand stops.”
mal force is equal to the weight of the block which
is 1 kilogram times 9.8 so—is equal to 4 over 9.8
I: “The hand keeps applying from A to C.” which is about 0.4.”

M: “Okay—So I’m going to calculate the kinetic I: “…Can you compare the magnitude of the net
energy that the block has until point B—” force at M to the net force at P—how would they

I: “How come you’re doing that?”

M: “The magnitude of the net forces?—well they
should be equal and opposite—”
M: “To find out what the total—what the energy it
loses on the friction surface is—which should tell
I: “And how did you know that? ”
me—yes of course—what the force acting against
it was. So that is going to be 2 Newtons times 1
meter, which is 关2兴 Joule关s兴 and that is equal to M: “By the same argument—because I assume that
2 m v squared—…v being the velocity of the the force due to friction—which is constant along
block—and that is exactly what it is going to lose the whole surface since the weight of the block
which means the force—the friction force should doesn’t change—I assumed that it was equal and
be equal to 4 Newtons in the other direction— opposite to the force—I’m sorry—I mean the sum
meaning…in the direction C to A, or to the of the force being applied by the hand and the
left—So that the net force being applied on the friction should be totally equal and opposite to just
block is 2 Newtons in the other direction so that the force applied by the hand on the block so that
the loss of energy is equal to the gain of energy in the loss of energy is equal along the same distance
the first half of the trajectory.” traveled—so they will be equal and opposite.”

At this point Mark connected his knowledge of force and The question concerning the magnitude of the net forces
work-energy and used them to solve the problem. He makes on the two regions was particularly difficult. Mark answered
these connections throughout, indicating global coherence correctly without hesitation by applying an integrated knowl-
among these knowledge elements. edge of dynamics and energy. Even some of the graduate
students who solved for ␮ correctly answered the question
I: “How did you know the loss in energy was the about the net force incorrectly 共at least at first兲. A pictorial
same as the gain in energy?” representation of Mark’s interview is given in Fig. 3.

1021 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 75, No. 11, November 2007 Mel S. Sabella and Edward F. Redish 1021
John is a second-year graduate student. Like Mark, he
solved the problem correctly in a short amount of time. Un-
like Mark, he only used a locally coherent set of force/
dynamics knowledge to solve the problem instead of a glo-
bally coherent knowledge structure containing both
dynamics and work-energy. It is interesting that even though
John correctly solved the problem, he first stated that the
magnitude of the net force at P is smaller than the magnitude
of the net force at M. He corrected himself soon after. The
excerpt below is taken from the interview.

J: “…so it will be minus 4 over 2—which is the

same acceleration—but opposite sign…and now
we can plug it back into this equation 共points to
F − ␮kN = −ma兲 for the force and the coefficient of
friction and so we have 2 Newtons—we are going Fig. 4. John’s reasoning map showing that even though he used the knowl-
to put numbers immediately—2 minus ␮k will be edge from the dynamics schema almost exclusively, he was able to solve the
problem in very few steps.
equal to F plus ma over N—␮k is 2 Newtons
plus…I’m using here the absolute values of the
acceleration over the 10…so we are going to have
0.4.” the hand is equal to the force of friction. 共Although this
equality is true after the block has stopped, it seems that Tom
made the statement because the velocity is zero at C and not
I: “How does the net force at M compare to the net because it remains at zero.兲 When solving for the coefficient
force at P?” of friction, Tom set the two forces equal and solved for ␮.
But, this solution did not feel right to him. Tom tries to
access different physics principles when his analysis using
J: “Umm—the net force at P is smaller than at dynamics does not seem correct, but these alternate prin-
M—by the amount of the kinetic friction. The net ciples lead to dead ends and Tom returned to thinking about
force is smaller by this amount because—the y the forces. Much of the dynamics knowledge Tom activates
components of the two forces are canceled out. So in this problem is stated fairly quickly, indicating a local
the only difference—they will be canceled out at coherence among these elements. We see evidence for a lack
point A too—and the only difference comes at of global coherence when Tom recognized that he needs ad-
point P because of the introduction of the force of ditional knowledge to solve the problem, but is unable to
friction, which is directed opposite to the applied access the relevant knowledge.
force.” T: “Yeah. So wait maybe that should be right.
关pause兴 That’s not right at all—…it doesn’t seem
I: “So can you draw me a vector for the net force at right to me—just give me a second—I just started
point P—how would that look?” to solve it assuming it would be easy—then real-
ized maybe it wasn’t as easy as I thought. Could
also do the work—the work from here 关points to
J: “It would look—almost caught me there—yeah A兴 to there 关points to B兴—no that’s got nothing to
the force of friction is bigger than the force—this do with it—no—friction—2 Newtons—the force
is net force—since the acceleration is negative—so of the hand remains constant—because according
negative y direction—net force—according to the to this—this wouldn’t be stopped there—it would
famous Newton’s second Law should…I’ll put it stop there if this were the case—…if this were the
here to support my statement—the net force should case if it was 9.8 Newtons and 2 Newtons because
be in the same direction as acceleration—” that is the same circumstance that we have at
A pictorial representation of John’s interview is given in B—so it would stop at B the way I have it set
Fig. 4. up—why would it stop at C? There is something
Tom, a first-year graduate student, exhibited many concep- about the 1 meter that I’m not getting—I’m not
tual difficulties while solving this problem. In addition, we thinking very well. There has to be something to
see a lack of global coherence in his knowledge, evident do with…the velocity—with the hand force I’m
from his inability to go back and forth between the two top- thinking—so I think—there is something to do
ics and the contradictory statements in the interview. Tom with friction apparently—”
initially identified all the forces in the free-body diagram
correctly. Later, he incorrectly described the force of the This excerpt shows that Tom uses linked pieces of his
hand to be greater at point P because the block is still mov- knowledge to try to activate some procedure that he could
ing toward the right. Tom appears to have applied the force- use to solve the problem. In this small excerpt he brings up
motion p-prim in such a way as to incorrectly link force and work, the force of the hand, the force of friction, the 1 meter,
velocity. In addition, Tom states that at point C the force of and the velocity. Unfortunately, these items lead to dead ends

1022 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 75, No. 11, November 2007 Mel S. Sabella and Edward F. Redish 1022
Fig. 5. Tom’s reasoning map shows that although he tried to bring up the ideas of work and energy, they lead to dead ends.

even though these ideas are all closely related to the work- braic form of Newton’s second law. Her qualitative and
energy theorem and the definition of work. Although Tom quantitative dynamics knowledge appear to be associated
did activate pieces of knowledge that are associated with the 共she articulated them very close together in time兲, but they
knowledge structures of work and energy, the fact that Tom have not been reconciled into a consistent knowledge struc-
did not pursue this line of reasoning, despite the fact that he ture. Dee-Dee’s use of the p-prim related to a maintaining
was at somewhat of a standstill, indicates that he was unable agency is consistent with previous conceptions research 关see
to activate a work and energy knowledge structure that an reference 15兴 and directly contradicts her activation of the
expert would have available. Without having this knowledge quantitative form of Newton’s second law.
structure, including links that activate in appropriate con-
texts, Tom could not make use of the work-energy theorem I: “So what happens at point C?”
to solve the problem.28 A pictorial representation of Tom’s
interview is given in Fig. 5.
Dee-Dee is another student who has serious conceptual D: “It stops—zero—velocity equals zero—
difficulties with the material. Like Tom, she drew a correct
…Oh—I see what you’re saying—but that is be-
free-body diagram for the block but seemed to be confusing
velocity with acceleration throughout the interview. She cause the force is not acting anymore—the hand is
seemed to use the idea of a maintaining agency, which states not pushing anymore—”
that a force is required to keep an object moving.29 A section
of the transcript follows.
I: “The hand acts all the way to point C.”
I: “How does this force 关friction兴 compare to that
force 关hand兴?”
D: “Oh—so it just stops at point C—for no
D: “Well if it’s still moving forward then this
关points to force of hand兴 is bigger then this 关points
to friction force兴—it’s not enough to stop it.”
I: “The force of the hand is remaining constant
This statement is particularly interesting because Dee-Dee from point A to point C.”
stated Newton’s second law correctly during the interview.
The following excerpt shows that Dee-Dee was very unwill-
ing to give up her qualitative ideas about force and motion, D: “Then if there is no impediment there then fric-
even though she has already written down the correct alge- tion is greater than the hand pushing it.”

1023 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 75, No. 11, November 2007 Mel S. Sabella and Edward F. Redish 1023
Fig. 6. Dee-Dee’s reasoning map showing that even with hints from the interviewer, it was difficult for her to reconcile the dynamics information with the
work and energy information.

I: “How did you know that? How did you know ment of physical reasoning from the interview is presented in
friction was greater?” the map, with a link to the next statement, and each state-
ment is coded. Statements are shaded lightly if they are
based on ideas that come from dynamics knowledge, shaded
D: “How? Because the force of the hand is the darkly if they come from work and energy, and not shaded at
same—so friction must have dominated that.” all if it is unclear where they come from. Words in italics
indicate statements made by the interviewer.
I: “How did you know it dominated?” Maps for two of the students who solved the problem
correctly are shown in Figs. 3 and 4. Even though neither
student has difficulty with the problem and each student’s
D: “Because it came to a stop—” statements are consistent and correct, the two solutions are
quite different. Mark 共see Fig. 3兲 goes back and forth be-
tween his knowledge of dynamics and his knowledge of
I: “Before, you said this force 关points to force of work and energy. John 共see Fig. 4兲 primarily uses his dynam-
hand兴 was greater than the force of friction. ics knowledge structure. When John needs some additional
information, he uses a formula from kinematics. 共This for-
D: Cause it was moving that way…—The coeffi- mula could also be interpreted as coming from the work-
cient must have been—No—Not the coefficient—I energy theorem but John did not explicitly make this connec-
don’t know—if the force of the hand is the same tion.兲 We shaded the statement lightly because he used the
form of the equation usually introduced in kinematics and
then the friction must have been different.”
dynamics. John’s reasoning map shows mostly dynamics
A pictorial representation of Dee Dee’s interview is given knowledge, suggesting that he has a locally coherent knowl-
in Fig. 6. edge structure of force and motion, but we cannot say any-
We present reasoning maps to represent some of the inter- thing about his work-energy knowledge structure or how
view data. These maps are intended to describe the students’ well these topics are integrated.
behavior. They should not, based on only our data, be inter- Figure 5 is a map of Tom’s interview. We see that he
preted as static models present in the students’ minds. They primarily used his knowledge of force and dynamics. Al-
may be created dynamically in response to the given context. though he mentioned work and energy, the statements lead to
In addition, we are using the students’ verbalizations to infer dead ends and he returned to thinking about the forces and
what the students are thinking, although we do not expect the motion of the block. The map also shows that Tom made
that these reasoning maps are direct mappings. Each state- many contradictory remarks in his interview. Some of these

1024 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 75, No. 11, November 2007 Mel S. Sabella and Edward F. Redish 1024
inconsistencies could have been resolved if the appropriate Table I. Performance on the question asking students to compare the mag-
links were made between different knowledge structures. nitudes of the net forces in the two regions.
Dee-Dee’s map in Fig. 6 shows that she also tried to solve
the problem by thinking about forces through most of the
magnitude of Incorrect: Fnet Incorrect: Fnet
interview. Her knowledge structure of forces appears to be net force at Correct: The net greater on nonfriction greater on
poorly connected to her knowledge of work and energy. In M to P force is equal surface friction surface
addition, it is internally inconsistent, mixing formal knowl-
edge with contradictory p-prims. The interviewer asked her 12% ± 4% 56% ± 6% 26% ± 5%
three questions relating to the work-energy theorem, but she
had difficulty tying these ideas to her analysis.
The interviews and the reasoning maps illustrate what we
mean by knowledge structures;30 that is, they are strong pat- access to the appropriate knowledge 共quantitative treatments
terns of association between particular knowledge elements of either force or the work-energy theorem兲 needed to solve
in response to a given context. The maps are consistent with the problem.
the fact that for different individuals the same knowledge can Students in the mechanics term of calculus-based physics
be connected in different ways. In addition, the connections were given the problem as an ungraded quiz in recitation
can be strong or weak. Tom attempted to activate different sections. The short version was administered to 40 students,
types of knowledge from different physics topics. 共Recall the and the long version was administered to 69 students. Be-
excerpt where he mentions work, velocity, and the distance cause the quiz was asked in the recitation sections and not all
the block travels.兲 The fact that these attempts led to dead students attended recitations, not all students in the class par-
ends leads us to believe that his relevant knowledge struc- ticipated in the study. Students were given 15 minutes to
tures 共for dynamics and work-energy兲 are relatively isolated. complete the quiz.
From numerous personal, informal interactions, we know Many of the undergraduate students exhibit patterns of
that graduate students at the University of Maryland have association that are characterized by local coherence, but not
both dynamics and work-energy knowledge structures and by the global coherence that would characterize an expert
are very capable of using each of these structures separately problem solver. In particular, the inclusion of qualitative
in solving traditional problems on these topics. Hence, we force-based questions 共long version of the problem兲 resulted
assume that the same is true for the students discussed here. in an increase in the fraction of the students activating a
A model solution to this problem would involve the applica- pattern of association about forces and a reduction in the
tion of both principles, or what we might call a globally fraction using energy methods. Students who were not pre-
coherent knowledge structure. These interviews provide evi- sented with the qualitative force questions 共short version of
dence that even some advanced students exhibit strong lo- the problem兲 were more likely to activate their knowledge of
cally coherent knowledge structures 共some of which are in- work and energy to solve the problem. Because we have no
ternally inconsistent兲, but do not combine their locally reason to believe that the groups differed in regard to the
coherent force knowledge with their energy knowledge. 共The prevalence of a globally coherent understanding of the top-
evidence for local coherence lies in the fact that these bits of ics, this result suggests that the qualitative force questions
knowledge are brought up rapidly during these interviews, cued a force knowledge structure and blocked activation of a
one statement leading directly and easily to the next.兲 Three work and energy knowledge structure.
of the six students were unable to go back and forth between We first discuss the student responses on the long version
the ideas of force and work-energy. Even when prodded to- of the problem. We then show the results of a comparison on
ward energy, one student 共Tom兲 made only brief forays into the responses to the last part of the problem, which was
the topic, resisting strongly a change of intellectual venue. answered by students with both versions. Part 共a兲 of the
Some of the students also made contradictory remarks that problem asked students to draw a free-body diagram for the
they found difficult to resolve. If we assume that these ad- block when it was on the surface with friction. Almost all the
vanced students do have a globally coherent connection be- students correctly identified all four forces on the block, al-
tween force/motion and work/energy knowledge structures, though in most cases it was difficult to check the relative
then these interviews hint that in some situations cuing local magnitudes of the forces.
coherences may set up barriers to the activation of other Part 共b兲 was extremely difficult for the students given the
related physics topics. To probe this issue more explicitly, we long form of the problem. Only 12% answered correctly. The
set up a controlled study with a larger group of introductory results are shown in Table I. 共Uncertainties in the reported
physics students. results are estimates of sampling error calculated as
共pq / N兲1/2, where p is the percent correct and q is the percent
incorrect.兲 The most common error, given by 56% of the
B. Study 2: Engineering physics students students, was that the magnitude of the net force on the non-
friction surface was greater than the magnitude of the net
In our second study we compared students’ performance force on the friction surface. One way this error commonly
when they were presented with one of the two versions of the arises is by activation of diSessa’s Ohm’s p-prim.15 The
same mechanics problem that we used in study 1. Students Ohm’s primitive comes from the compensating type of rea-
were asked to solve either a short version or a long version of soning that is associated with Ohm’s law. A part of the
the problem shown in Fig. 2. The short version asked two Ohm’s primitive states that an “increased resistance leads to
questions, the long version four. The questions in boldface less result.” Because the block first travels over a nonfriction
appeared on both versions. The purpose of the non-boldfaced surface and then over a surface with friction, the resistance
questions was to see whether cuing a qualitative analysis of on the block increases, thereby decreasing the result, which
the forces in the problem would improve or harm students’ in this case can be interpreted as the net force. We commonly

1025 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 75, No. 11, November 2007 Mel S. Sabella and Edward F. Redish 1025
Table II. Sample student responses comparing the net force on the friction
surface to the non-friction surface.

Two sample Case 1: “It is greater at M Case 2: “关It is兴 less 关at
student because there is no frictional M兴 because friction is being
response force working invoked at point P in
against the Fhand.” addition to the 2N.”

saw this type of response in interviews with the undergradu-

ate engineering students and the advanced physics students.
In addition, 26% of the students stated that the net force
on the frictionless surface would be less. One way this result
could arise is if students were not considering the vector
nature of the forces and were thinking of the net force as the
number of forces acting on the block. This interpretation is
Fig. 7. Performance on the quantitative part of the problem showing that
supported by evidence from some of the students’ written
students performed better on the short version. The graph also indicates that
responses. Two examples of student responses showing each the dominant method of solution on the long and short version was different.
type of incorrect response are shown in Table II. Data do not include students that did not complete the problem. Eight per-
In part 共c兲 the students were asked two conceptual ques- cent of students did not finish the short version; 20% did not finish the long
tions about the acceleration vector on the surface with fric- version. Uncertainties are estimates of sampling error and are calculated
tion. The results, shown in Table III, indicate that 41% of the using 共pq / N兲1/2.
students correctly answered that the direction of the accel-
eration vector was to the left. On the other hand, only 32% of
the students stated that the magnitude of the acceleration
vector does not change as the block moves from point B to
point C, where it comes to rest. The large number of students 30% of the students answered this question correctly. The
stating that the acceleration decreases as the object slows results show that students performed better on the short ver-
down is consistent with previous work indicating that stu- sion of the problem.
dents often treat acceleration as if it were proportional to We can see from Fig. 7 that more students used the ideas
velocity.31 Twenty percent of the students stated that the ac- of work-energy to solve the question on the short version of
celeration of the block at point P was zero. the problem. Most of the students who did not solve the
The results on the qualitative questions indicate that stu- problem using work-energy used ideas from kinematics to
dents still have many difficulties with Newton’s second law, try to solve for the acceleration of the block from point B to
even though instruction on Newton’s laws was completed a point C. It is interesting that the same percentage of students,
few weeks before this study was conducted. on both the long and the short versions of the problem, used
We now examine the student responses on the final part of a method other than the work-energy theorem to solve the
the problem, where students were asked to calculate the co- question 共indicated by a dashed line兲. These observations
efficient of kinetic friction. Figure 7 shows the results on the provide evidence of the dynamic nature of student knowl-
quantitative part of this problem for the students taking both edge structures. That is, the data support the idea that for
the long and the short version. It shows the percentage of these two populations of students, particular elements in the
correct responses as well as the percentage of students set- problem sometimes activated different, distinct sets of
ting the net force on the block equal to zero in the region knowledge.32 If the conceptual questions lead students into a
with friction. The percentages listed include only the stu- dynamics/force knowledge structure that is not linked to
dents who had enough time to attempt the final question. their work/energy structure, the students may try to solve the
Even though students had covered this material in lecture problem using only force. This observation supports the idea
and had homework assignments on the material, fewer than that novice problem solvers tend to cue on the surface fea-
tures of a problem.25
Because all the conceptual questions focus on force, it is
possible that our students responded by cuing knowledge
Table III. Performance on the questions concerning the acceleration vector
structures with strong links only to dynamics. We had hoped
of the block on the surface with friction.
that our students would use their dynamics knowledge to
Acceleration Incorrect: Vectro activate work-energy knowledge. This does not appear to be
vector at Correct: Vector in the direction of the case, even though these students had received a mix of
point P directed to the left Incorrect: Zero motion conceptual and quantitative instruction.
We note that, although the results in study 2 are consistent
41% ± 6% 20% ± 5% 19% ± 5% with those in study 1, suggesting that a significant fraction of
the students in calculus-based physics has trouble integrating
How does the Correct: Incorrect: knowledge of force and knowledge of energy, there is a com-
vector Acceleration is Acceleration is plicating factor for this population. In addition to knowledge
change? constant decreasing
structures for organizing specific physics content, students at
32% ± 6% 55% ± 6% the introductory level may also have created isolated knowl-
edge modes 共epistemological control structures that affect

1026 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 75, No. 11, November 2007 Mel S. Sabella and Edward F. Redish 1026
Table IV. Inconsistencies in the student responses on the hand-block problem.

Of the students who could Incorrect: Stated that the Incorrect: Stated that the
calculate ␮ correctly many magnitude of the net acceleration vector
made serious conceptual force in the two regions decreases as the block
errors. were different on part B moves from B to C

five students three students N=8

Of the students who had a

nonzero acceleration
vector some answered Incorrect: Stated that the
inconsistently on the net force was equal to
quantitative part. zero when solving for ␮.

seven students N = 41

how they use their conceptual knowledge兲 for their qualita- our mechanics problem. Even though some of the students
tive knowledge and their quantitative knowledge within could solve the quantitative question correctly, many of them
these physics topics. still had serious qualitative difficulties. Answering the quan-
Although many education reformers and some instructors titative question correctly requires that the student use the
believe that conceptual questions help students cue the cor- fact that the magnitudes of the accelerations are equal in the
rect knowledge needed to solve a complex problem, our data two regions. Note that only eight students answered part 共d兲
suggest that this is not always the case. If the students have correctly on the long version. Five of the eight students who
not adequately integrated their conceptual and formal knowl- answered the final part correctly stated incorrectly that the
edge, conceptual questions that do not explicitly cue students magnitude of the net force was different in the two regions.
to activate all the relevant knowledge structures may actually Three students who solved for the coefficient of friction cor-
hurt their performance on quantitative problems. Cues that rectly, incorrectly stated that the acceleration vector was de-
help a physics instructor activate a set of different interre- creasing from point B to point C. Perhaps an even more
lated knowledge structures do not necessarily help students surprising result is that seven of the 41 students who drew a
activate those structures, and the same cues may distract stu- nonzero acceleration vector in part 共c兲 set the net force equal
dents from doing so. Some of these cues can cause students to zero when solving the quantitative question—showing a
to activate a particular knowledge structure that may be iso- clear disconnect in their qualitative and quantitative knowl-
lated from the relevant knowledge structure for a given task. edge.
In neither case do we consider the question to be unfair. The data from the ungraded quiz suggest that, for these
Rather, as we have already stated, the issue is not whether an students, physics knowledge may be organized in structures
instructor can provide an explicit cue to get the student to that are only weakly linked. If these students were develop-
give the correct answer. The issue is how to help the student ing global coherence between their knowledge structures, we
learn to activate knowledge structures that respond to appro- would expect the qualitative questions to help in solving
priate cues. these problems. For the problem shown in Fig. 2, qualitative
The engineering students in our second study made two questions that lead students to a force/dynamics knowledge
main types of errors. Some solved for the coefficient of ki- structure seem to isolate them from other pieces of knowl-
netic friction correctly yet demonstrated a serious qualitative edge that could have been helpful in solving the problem.
misunderstanding. These observations are consistent with Students who were given the problem without the qualitative
those of Mazur, who shows that students can succeed on component were more likely to activate their work-energy
quantitative problems but have difficulty with qualitative dis- knowledge.
cussions of the same or similar situation.33 Other students
gave appropriate qualitative responses that they did not apply IV. IMPLICATIONS FOR INSTRUCTION AND
when answering the final quantitative question. These results RESEARCH
extend Mazur’s point, showing that cuing qualitative knowl-
edge, even when the students have that knowledge, may ac- The resource model of knowledge elements connected in
tually inhibit appropriate quantitative responses. associational patterns that has helped us interpret our data
We cannot distinguish in this study between the activation has a number of implications for our interpretation of what
of the conceptual knowledge of forces inhibiting student use we see in the classroom, what our goals might be for instruc-
of the knowledge of energy and the activation of a qualitative tion, and how we might further explore student knowledge in
mode inhibiting the use of quantitative reasoning. Either one our research. We discuss these implications briefly below.
makes our point that cuing one kind of knowledge structure Having knowledge is not sufficient: it must be activated in
can inhibit the activation of others. Note that these issues appropriate contexts. Beginning students often have trouble
共force versus energy and qualitative versus quantitative兲 are recognizing that their knowledge is applicable to contexts
not either-or. Both are relevant and it may be difficult to other than the one in which it was originally learned. This
disentangle them in any particular example. Some details leads to an apparent context dependence of student knowl-
from the student responses can help us gain insight as to how edge. This feature of the model reminds us that, if a student
these issues are related here. does not use a particular fact or process in a given situation,
Table IV shows examples of student inconsistencies on that does not necessarily mean the student doesn’t possess

1027 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 75, No. 11, November 2007 Mel S. Sabella and Edward F. Redish 1027
that knowledge. It may mean that the student has not cor- physics exams is dominated by questions that each deal with
rectly associated the knowledge with the conditions and cir- a single specific topic or that do not require students to link
cumstances relevant to its use. All knowledge is context de- their qualitative understanding to quantitative problem solv-
pendent; the critical factor is whether knowledge is activated ing.
in appropriate contexts. Given simple physics problems, ex- We have presented evidence for the existence of locally
perts may activate relevant fundamental principles while coherent student knowledge structures that are strongly re-
novices may activate inappropriate knowledge of what equa- lated sets of knowledge that are brought to a problem-solving
tion was used in a problem with similar surface structure. task. We suggest that the knowledge structures our students
Hence, we not only have to teach our students knowledge, form, unlike those of an expert, are often characterized, at
we have to make it functional by helping them learn to rec- best, by local rather than global coherence, and are isolated
ognize the situations in which it is appropriate to use that from other appropriate and related knowledge structures.
knowledge. We not only have to do research to understand These characteristics can hinder students when they attempt
what difficulties or inappropriate responses our students to solve complex and challenging problems. In addition,
have, we need to do research to understand how to help even in reformed instruction where there is an emphasis on
students cue appropriate links so that they can learn to build qualitative reasoning about a particular topic, students may
appropriate activations. group this qualitative knowledge separately from the quanti-
These studies, particularly the detailed interviews with the tative knowledge, forming isolated, weakly linked knowl-
advanced students and the failure of the introductory stu- edge structures.
dents to see inconsistencies in qualitative and quantitative Our results from the study with engineering students sug-
responses, show that having lots of accumulated knowledge gest that these weak or absent links can cause our students to
does not suffice. Knowledge has to be organized in such a perform more poorly when they are presented with qualita-
way as to allow relevant knowledge to be activated appro- tive questions before a related quantitative question. This
priately. Our instruction often focuses on getting the physics poor performance may be due to students activating a par-
or learning the concepts, and fails to help students integrate ticular knowledge structure as a response to the qualitative
the ideas that they are learning into a usable whole. Straight- cue and then getting trapped in knowledge elements strongly
forward exercises that only activate a single physics principle linked to this particular structure. If the knowledge structure
or idea send our students the wrong message that the knowl- that is activated does not contain all the information needed
edge structures they are building are limited and local. More for the problem, students may not be able to access the
complex problems, especially carefully chosen ones, may do needed knowledge, even if they possess it.
a better job in helping our students learn to integrate their
knowledge. We need more research to explore how students
integrate their knowledge and how the activation of that in- ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
tegration depends on context. All members of the Physics Education Research Group at
Building a coherent knowledge structure has to be one of the University of Maryland have played both an intellectual
the goals of a scientific education. Our studies indicate that and a logistic role in this work. The authors would especially
traditional training may leave our students 共even after a full like to thank Richard Steinberg and David Hammer for many
undergraduate physics major’s program兲 with inadequate helpful, intense discussions about this work. The authors are
cross-connections and consistencies between the different also grateful to the instructors in the courses in which this
parts of their knowledge. Studies using the MPEX 共Ref. 34兲 study was conducted. We acknowledge valuable editing sug-
indicate that students’ sense of the importance of coherence gestions from two anonymous referees and from Ginny Re-
does not generally improve as the result of a traditional in- dish. This work was supported in part by NSF Grants DUE-
troductory physics course or even as the result of an intro- 96-5-2877, REC-00-8-7519, and FIPSE Grant P116B97-
ductory course reformed to improve conceptual knowledge. 0186.
These self-reports do not necessarily reflect the actual coher-
ence of the students’ knowledge structures, but if students
don’t consider coherence important, it is unlikely they will L. C. McDermott and E. F. Redish, “Resource Letter Per-1: Physics edu-
pay much attention to the integration of their knowledge. cation research,” Am. J. Phys. 67, 755–767; R. D. Knight, Five Easy
More explicit instructional effort toward building coherence Lessons 共Addison Wesley, San Francisco, 2002兲.
E. F. Redish, Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite 共John Wiley &
appears to be required, and research on what helps students Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2003兲.
learn to seek coherence could be of considerable value. 3
D. O. Hebb, The Organization of Behavior 共John Wiley & Sons, New
York, 1949兲.
Principles of Neural Science, 4th ed., edited by E. R. Kandel, J. H.
Schwartz, and T. M. Jessell 共McGraw Hill/Appleton & Lange, New York,
The idea that students often form isolated sets of knowl- 5
J. Fuster, Cortex and Mind: Unifying Cognition 共Oxford University Press,
edge during instruction is important for both instructors and New York, 2003兲; Memory in the Cerebral Cortex: An Empirical Ap-
curriculum developers. At the simplest level, the associa- proach to Neural Networks in the Human and Non-Human Primate 共MIT
tional character of the resource model highlights the impor- Press, Cambridge, 1999兲.
tance of helping students develop explicit links to related H. L. Roediger III and K. B. McDermott, “Creating false memories:
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and exams should be designed to help students develop the Mem. Cogn. 21, 803–814 共1995兲.
Fuster 共Ref. 5兲 refers to such a network representing a basic element of
necessary connections between various physics concepts as knowledge as a cognit 共short for cognitive bit兲. We will not use this term
well as connections between qualitative and quantitative here as it does not appear to be in widespread use.
knowledge. Although this statement may be obvious to 8
J. Fuster, Cortex and Mind: Unifying Cognition 共Oxford U.P., New York,
many, anecdotal evidence suggests that the vast majority of 2003兲, p. 14.

1028 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 75, No. 11, November 2007 Mel S. Sabella and Edward F. Redish 1028
See for example, Ref. 6. ich, and R. Glaser, “Categorization and representation of physics prob-
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S. P. Marshall, Schemas in Problem-Solving 共Cambridge U.P., New York,
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M. Loverude, C. Kautz, and P. Heron, “Student understanding of the first
Course CLVI, edited by E. Redish and M. Vicentini 共Italian Physical law of thermodynamics: Relating work to the adiabatic compression of an
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E. F. Redish, “A theoretical framework for physics education research: 25
M. T. H. Chi, P. S. Feltovich, and R. Glaser, “Categorization and repre-
Modeling student thinking,” in Proceedings of the Enrico Fermi Summer sentation of physics problems by experts and novices, Cogn. Sci. 5,
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G. Polya, How to Solve it 共Doubleday, New York, 1945兲.
D. Hammer, A. Elby, R. Scherr, and E. F. Redish, “Resources, framing, 27
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Perspective, edited by J. Mestre 共Information Age Publishing, Green- 28
Other knowledge we have of Tom, unfortunately anecdotal and personal
wich, CT, in press兲, Chap. 3.
14 and not documented in a research fashion, suggests that his problem is
Schema is the term generally 共and inconsistently兲 used in the cognitive
not a lack of knowledge about work and energy.
literature. 29
15 Maintaining agency is a term used by Hammer to describe diSessa’s
A. A. diSessa, “Knowledge in pieces,” in Constructivism in the Computer
continuous force p-prim. See D. Hammer, “More than misconceptions:
Age, edited by G. Forman and P. Pufall 共Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale,
Multiple perspectives on student knowledge, and an appropriate role for
NJ, 1988兲, pp. 1–24; D. Hammer, “More than misconceptions: Multiple
education research,” Am. J. Phys. 64, 1316–1325 共1996兲.
perspectives on student knowledge, and an appropriate role for education 30
This study differs from that of Galili and Hazan in that we attempt to
research,” Am. J. Phys. 64, 1316–1325 共1996兲.
Fuster 共Ref. 5兲 refers to this kind of resource as reflexive reasoning. classify knowledge structures based on student responses and researcher
R. D. ’Andrade, The Development of Cognitive Anthropology 共Cambridge interpretation whereas Galili and Hazan generate elements of what they
U.P., Cambridge, 1995兲. call schemes in this way, but the elements are grouped into schemes
A. diSessa and B. Sherin, “What changes in conceptual change?,” Int. J. determined by the researcher. Thus the nature of the knowledge structures
Sci. Educ. 20, 1155–1191 共1998兲. in these two works is different. See I. Galili and A. Hazan, “The influence
A more detailed discussion of this topic and related topics can be found in of an historically oriented course on students’ content knowledge in op-
M. S. Sabella, “Using the context of physics problem-solving to evaluate tics evaluated by means of facets-schemes analysis,” Am. J. Phys. 68,
the coherence of student knowledge,” Ph.D. dissertation, Department of S52–S59 共2000兲.
Physics, University of Maryland, College Park, 共1999兲; D. E. Trowbridge and L. C. McDermott, “Investigation of student under-
具www.physics.umd.edu/perg/dissertations/Sabella/典. standing of the concept of acceleration in one dimension,” Am. J. Phys.
D. E. Rumelhart, “Schemata: The building blocks of cognition,” in Com- 49, 242–253 共1981兲.
prehension and Teaching: Research Reviews, edited by J. T. Guthrie 共In- Larkin writes specifically about knowledge structures for force and work-
ternational Reading Association, Newark, DE, 1981兲, pp. 3–27. energy but does not write about how these knowledge structures are
21 linked. J. H. Larkin, “The role of problem representation in physics,” in
S. P. Marshall, “Assessing problem solving: A short term remedy and a
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1029 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 75, No. 11, November 2007 Mel S. Sabella and Edward F. Redish 1029