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A case study of how upper-division physics students use visualization while solving electrostatics problems

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  • Presented here is a case study of the problem-solving behaviors of upper-division undergraduate physics majors. This study explores the role of visual representations in students' problem solving and provides a foundation for investigating how students' use of visualization changes in the upper-division physics major. Three independent studies were conducted on similar samples of students. At the time of these studies, all of the subjects were junior physics majors participating in the Paradigms in Physics curriculum at Oregon State University. In the first study, we found that while all students had high scores on the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test, the correlation between test scores and their grades in physics was not statistically significant. In the second study (N=5) and the third study (N=15), we conducted think-aloud interviews in which students solved electrostatics problems. Based on the interviews in the third study, we develop a model that describes the process by which students construct knowledge while solving the interview problems. We then use this model as a framework to propose hypotheses about students' problem-solving behavior. In addition, we identify several difficulties students have with the concepts of electric field and flux. In particular, we describe student difficulties that arise from confusing the vector and field line representations of electric field. Finally, we suggest some teaching strategies that may help to assuage the student difficulties we observed.
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