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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Cognitive development in introductory physics: A research-based approach to curriculum reform
by Teodorescu, Raluca Elena, Ph.D., The George Washington University, 2009, 333; 3359606
Abstract (Summary)

This project describes the research on a classification of physics problems in the context of introductory physics courses. This classification, called the Taxonomy of Introductory Physics Problems (TIPP), relates physics problems to the cognitive processes required to solve them. TIPP was created for designing and clarifying educational objectives, for developing assessments that can evaluate individual component processes of the problem-solving process, and for guiding curriculum design in introductory physics courses, specifically within the context of a “thinking-skills” curriculum. TIPP relies on the following resources: (1) cognitive research findings adopted by physics education research, (2) expert-novice research discoveries acknowledged by physics education research, (3) an educational psychology taxonomy for educational objectives, and (4) various collections of physics problems created by physics education researchers or developed by textbook authors.

TIPP was used in the years 2006–2008 to reform the first semester of the introductory algebra-based physics course (called Phys 11) at The George Washington University. The reform sought to transform our curriculum into a “thinking-skills” curriculum that trades “breadth for depth” by focusing on fewer topics while targeting the students’ cognitive development. We employed existing research on the physics problem-solving expert-novice behavior, cognitive science and behavioral science findings, and educational psychology recommendations.

Our pedagogy relies on didactic constructs such as the GW-ACCESS problem-solving protocol, learning progressions and concept maps that we have developed and implemented in our introductory physics course. These tools were designed based on TIPP. Their purpose is: (1) to help students build local and global coherent knowledge structures, (2) to develop more context-independent problem-solving abilities, (3) to gain confidence in problem solving, and (4) to establish connections between everyday phenomena and underlying physics concepts. We organize traditional and research-based physics problems such that students experience a gradual increase in complexity related to problem context, problem features and cognitive processes needed to solve the problem. The instructional environment that we designed allows for explicit monitoring, control and measurement of the cognitive processes exercised during the instruction period. It is easily adaptable to any kind of curriculum and can be readily adjusted throughout the semester.

To assess the development of students’ problem-solving abilities, we created rubrics that measure specific aspects of the thinking involved in physics problem solving. The Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey (CLASS) was administered pre- and post-instruction to determine students’ shift in dispositions towards learning physics. The Force Concept Inventory (FCI) was administered pre- and post-instruction to determine students’ level of conceptual understanding. The results feature improvements in students’ problem-solving abilities and in their attitudes towards learning physics.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Bennhold, Cornelius, Feldman, Gerald
Commitee: Berman, Barry, Eskandarian, Ali, Medsker, Larry, Nijdam, Jasper
School: The George Washington University
Department: Physics
School Location: United States -- District of Columbia
Source: DAI-B 70/06, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Physics, Science education, Curriculum development
Keywords: Cognitive development, Curriculum reform, Introductory physics, Physics, Problem-solving
Publication Number: 3359606
ISBN: 978-1-109-21366-9
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