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A Cognitive Framework for Analyzing and Describing Introductory Students' Use and Understanding of Mathematics in Physics Documents

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A Cognitive Framework for Analyzing and Describing Introductory Students' Use and Understanding of Mathematics in Physics 

Many introductory, algebra-based physics students perform poorly on mathematical problem solving tasks in physics. There are at least two possible, distinct reasons for this poor performance: (1) students simply lack the mathematical skills needed to solve problems in physics, or (2) students do not know how to apply the mathematical skills they have to particular problem situations in physics. While many students do lack the requisite mathematical skills, a major finding from this work is that the majority of students possess the requisite mathematical skills, yet fail to use or interpret them in the context of physics.

In this thesis I propose a theoretical framework to analyze and describe students' mathematical thinking in physics. In particular, I attempt to answer two questions. What are the cognitive tools involved in formal mathematical thinking in physics? And, why do students make the kinds of mistakes they do when using mathematics in physics?

Two important results from this work are: (1) the construction of a theoretical framework that offers researchers a vocabulary (ontological classification of cognitive structures) and grammar (relationship between the cognitive structures) for understanding the nature and origin of mathematical use in the context physics, and (2) a detailed understanding, in terms of the proposed theoretical framework, of the errors that students make when using mathematics in the context of physics.

© Jonathan Tuminaro

Published January 1, 2004
Last Modified December 29, 2006

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