Reading: Categorization and Representation Physics Problems by Experts and Novices



This article definitely goes on the “top 10” list of physics education research. It is an early article in the field (1981), but been cited an immense 3600 times, meaning it really has stood the test of time.

The authors investigate the difference in experts and novices at solving physics problems. The novices being students who have finished a first year uni course, and the experts being wither PhD students or professors.

The first task required test subjects to group a bunch of problems together in sets that had similarities. Experts group problems based on the major physics principle (conservation of energy, Newton’s Laws) needed to solve them. Novices on the other grouped problems based on their surface features. These included objects such as springs, ramps etc, and key words such as force or velocity.

Later tasks delved deeper to further investigate the thinking process in experts and novices. Novices used the surface features of a problem to search for an equation. Once with an equation, they hoped it would lead them to a solution, or an intermediate solution where they could use another equation to further advance them.

Experts were sometimes able to guess the major physics principle involved after reading  only 20% of the problem. They further confirmed, or readjusted their view as they read on, and had planned an overall “attack” on the problem, knowing how to get to solution without mentioning or reciting a single equation. After the plan was clear, they could then start looking for initial values and choosing appropriate equations.

One piece of research I would love to do is to replicate this in NZ. Do our best and brightest (scholarship winners) think like this? Can we train students to think like this? Does a modeling approach seek to improve students thinking to this level?

Certainly a great piece of research, and I’m sure I will come back to it a number of times.


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