Good use of multiple representations is considered key to learning physics, and so there is considerable motivation both to learn how students use multiple representations when solving problems and to learn how best to teach problem solving using multiple representations. In this study of two large-lecture algebra-based physics courses at the University of Colorado (CU) and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, we address both issues. Students in each of the two courses solved five common electrostatics problems of varying difficulty, and we examine their solutions to clarify the relationship between multiple representation use and performance on problems involving free-body diagrams. We also compare our data across the courses, since the two physics-education-research-based courses take substantially different approaches to teaching the use of multiple representations. The course at Rutgers takes a strongly directed approach, emphasizing specific heuristics and problem-solving strategies. The course at CU takes a weakly directed approach, modeling good problem solving without teaching a specific strategy. We find that, in both courses, students make extensive use of multiple representations, and that this use (when both complete and correct) is associated with significantly increased performance. Some minor differences in representation use exist, and are consistent with the types of instruction given. Most significant are the strong and broad similarities in the results, suggesting that either instructional approach or a combination thereof can be useful for helping students learn to use multiple representations for problem solving and concept development.
Physical Review Physics Education Research
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