A good diagram is valuable despite the choice of a mathematical approach to problem solving Documents

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A good diagram is valuable despite the choice of a mathematical approach to problem solving

written by Alexandru Maries and Chandralekha Singh

Drawing appropriate diagrams is a useful problem solving heuristic that can transform a problem into a representation that is easier to exploit for solving the problem. A major focus while helping introductory physics students learn problem solving is to help them appreciate that drawing diagrams facilitates problem solution. We conducted an investigation in which 118 students in an algebra-based introductory physics course were subjected to two different interventions during the problem solving in recitation quizzes throughout the semester. Here, we discuss the problem solving performance of students in different intervention groups for two problems involving standing waves in tubes, one which was given in a quiz and the other in a midterm exam. These problems can be solved using two different methods, one involving a diagrammatic representation and the other involving mostly mathematical manipulation of equations. In the quiz, students were either (1) asked to solve the problem in which a partial diagram was provided or (2) explicitly asked to draw a diagram. A comparison group was not given any instruction regarding diagrams. Students in group (1), who were given the partial diagram, could not use that partial diagram by itself to solve the problem. The partial diagram was simply intended as a hint for students to complete the diagram and follow the diagrammatic approach. However, we find an opposite effect, namely, that students given this diagram were less likely to draw productive diagrams and performed worse than students in the other groups. Moreover, we find that students who drew a productive diagram performed better than those who did not draw a productive diagram even if they primarily used a mathematical approach. Interviews with individual students who were asked to solve the problem provided further insight.

Published February 1, 2014