Date of Award

Spring 2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Committee Director

Gail Dodge

Committee Member

Robert Beichner

Committee Member

James L. Cox, Jr.

Committee Member

John Ritz

Committee Member

Lawrence Weinstein

Committee Member

Leposava Vuskovic


An epistemic strategy is one in which a person takes a piece of knowledge and uses it to create new knowledge. Students in algebra and calculus based physics courses use epistemic strategies to solve physics problems. It is important to map how students use these epistemic strategies to solve physics problems in order to provide insight into the problem solving process.

In this thesis three questions were addressed: (1) What epistemic strategies do students use when solving two-dimensional physics problems that require vector algebra? (2) Do vector preconceptions in kinematics and Newtonian mechanics hinder a student's ability to apply the correct mathematical tools when solving a problem? and, (3) What patterns emerge with students of similar vector algebra skill in their problem solving abilities? Literature discussing epistemic games and frames was reviewed as well as literature discussing qualitative research, quantitative research, and think-aloud protocols.

Students were given various problems in two-dimensional kinematics, statics and dynamics. They were asked to solve the problems using think-aloud protocol. After the student solved the problem he was asked to recall what he remembered about the solution process. This procedure gave more insight into the thought process of the student during the time he solved the problems.

In addition to the interviews, a vector pre-assessment survey was administered to students at the beginning of the term. The vector pre-assessment survey provided data about the vector knowledge students brought into the physics course. Students scoring lower than fifty percent on the vector pre-assessment survey did not solve any problems correctly. These data and the results of a grounded theory study provided information about the problem solving strategies of the students interviewed in this study.

Seven epistemic strategies were observed. These seven epistemic strategies fell into three frames: the qualitative sense making frame, the quantitative sense making frame, and the rote problem solving frame. The epistemic strategies identification of frames gave a detailed overview of how students solve physics problems involving vector algebra. Incomplete pieces of epistemic strategies, called strands, were also observed. Students would move between strategies without completing all the steps for a specific strategy. Strands were observed for most students.

Advanced problem solvers or those students with more experience solving physics problems, moved from the qualitative sense making frame into the quantitative sense making frame to solve the problems. Students solving the problems correctly consistently moved into the quantitative sense making frame. However, if a student had access to an example that showed the exact solution, that student could end the problem with a correct solution in the rote problem solving frame. If no solutions or examples similar to the problem were available, the student was always unsuccessful solving the problem unless he/she moved into the quantitative sense making frame.

Misconceptions about motion and forces were identified. Vector preconceptions were difficult to identify in this project, but difficulties with vector algebra were observed.


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