Students’ conceptual performance on synthesis physics problems with varying mathematical complexity
AbstractA body of research on physics problem solving has focused on single-concept problems. In this study we use “synthesis problems” that involve multiple concepts typically taught in different chapters. We use two types of synthesis problems, sequential and simultaneous synthesis tasks. Sequential problems require a consecutive application of fundamental principles, and simultaneous problems require a concurrent application of pertinent concepts. We explore students’ conceptual performance when they solve quantitative synthesis problems with varying mathematical complexity. Conceptual performance refers to the identification, follow-up, and correct application of the pertinent concepts. Mathematical complexity is determined by the type and the number of equations to be manipulated concurrently due to the number of unknowns in each equation. Data were collected from written tasks and individual interviews administered to physics major students (N=179) enrolled in a second year mechanics course. The results indicate that mathematical complexity does not impact students’ conceptual performance on the sequential tasks. In contrast, for the simultaneous problems, mathematical complexity negatively influences the students’ conceptual performance. This difference may be explained by the students’ familiarity with and confidence in particular concepts coupled with cognitive load associated with manipulating complex quantitative equations. Another explanation pertains to the type of synthesis problems, either sequential or simultaneous task. The students split the situation presented in the sequential synthesis tasks into segments but treated the situation in the simultaneous synthesis tasks as a single event.