An Investigation into Student Ability to Relate a Vector Representation to an Alternate Representation of a Physical Situation



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In learning physics, students repeatedly encounter vectors (quantities which have a magnitude and a direction). They must be comfortable with vector notation and mathematics in order to solve many physics problems. Physics students are also presented with many types of representations, from graphs to field line diagrams. In solving physics problems students must be able to interpret this multitude of representations. I probed the intersection of students’ vectors skills and their skills at interpreting visual representations. Specifically, my project sought to document the extent to which students are able to relate a vector representation of a physical situation to another representation of that same physical situation which does not use vectors. This ability was tested in various contexts throughout the introductory physics curriculum. I created pre-test questions which were administered to students at the University of Washington over three quarters. Responses to these questions were analyzed for correctness, common errors, and consistency. The specific results for each context are presented in the relevant sections of the thesis. However, in all contexts examined, students struggled to relate a vector representation to an alternate representation of a physical situation. Ideas for curriculum development to address this difficulty are presented at the end of this thesis.



Vectors, Physics Education Research, Representations