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Cognition and Instruction
written by Bruce L. Sherin
What does it mean to understand a physics equation? The use of formal expressions in physics is not just a matter of the rigorous and routinized application of principles, followed by the formal manipulation of expressions to obtain an answer. Rather, successful students learn to understand what equations say in a fundamental sense; they have a feel for expressions, and this guides their work. More specifically, students learn to understand physics equations in terms of a vocabulary of elements that I call symbolic forms. Each symbolic form associates a simple conceptual schema with a pattern of symbols in an equation. This hypothesis has implications for how we should understand what must be taught and learned in physics classrooms. From the point of view of improving instruction, it is absolutely critical to acknowledge that physics expertise involves this more flexible and generative understanding of equations, and our instruction should be geared toward helping students to acquire this understanding. The work described here is based on an analysis of a corpus of videotapes in which university students solve physics problems.
Cognition and Instruction: Volume 19, Issue 4, Pages 479-541
Subjects Levels Resource Types
Education Foundations
- Cognition
General Physics
- Physics Education Research
- Lower Undergraduate
- Upper Undergraduate
- Reference Material
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© 2001
Cognitive Development, Educational Practices, Learning Processes, Physics, Problem Solving, Schemata (Cognition), Science Education, Theory Practice Relationship, Undergraduate Students
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Metadata instance created July 14, 2005 by Lyle Barbato
Record Updated:
September 23, 2007 by Lyle Barbato
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AIP Format
B. Sherin, Cog. Instr. 19 (4), 479 (2001), WWW Document, (
B. Sherin, How students understand physics equations, Cog. Instr. 19 (4), 479 (2001), <>.
APA Format
Sherin, B. (2001). How students understand physics equations. Cog. Instr., 19(4), 479-541. Retrieved November 13, 2018, from
Chicago Format
Sherin, Bruce. "How students understand physics equations." Cog. Instr. 19, no. 4, (2001): 479-541, (accessed 13 November 2018).
MLA Format
Sherin, Bruce. "How students understand physics equations." Cog. Instr. 19.4 (2001): 479-541. 13 Nov. 2018 <>.
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@article{ Author = "Bruce Sherin", Title = {How students understand physics equations}, Journal = {Cog. Instr.}, Volume = {19}, Number = {4}, Pages = {479-541}, Year = {2001} }
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%A Bruce Sherin
%T How students understand physics equations
%J Cog. Instr.
%V 19
%N 4
%D 2001
%P 479-541
%O application/pdf

EndNote Export Format

%0 Journal Article
%A Sherin, Bruce
%D 2001
%T How students understand physics equations
%J Cog. Instr.
%V 19
%N 4
%P 479-541

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