An Epistemic Framing Analysis of Upper Level Physics Students' Use of Mathematics

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2008-07-11

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Abstract

Mathematics is central to a professional physicist's work and, by extension, to a physics student's studies. It provides a language for abstraction, definition, computation, and connection to physical reality. This power of mathematics in physics is also the source of many of the difficulties it presents students. Simply put, many different activities could all be described as "using math in physics". Expertise entails a complicated coordination of these various activities.

This work examines the many different kinds of thinking that are all facets of the use of mathematics in physics. It uses an epistemological lens, one that looks at the type of explanation a student presently sees as appropriate, to analyze the mathematical thinking of upper level physics undergraduates. Sometimes a student will turn to a detailed calculation to produce or justify an answer. Other times a physical argument is explicitly connected to the mathematics at hand. Still other times quoting a definition is seen as sufficient, and so on. Local coherencies evolve in students' thought around these various types of mathematical justifications. We use the cognitive process of framing to model students' navigation of these various facets of math use in physics.

We first demonstrate several common framings observed in our students' mathematical thought and give several examples of each. Armed with this analysis tool, we then give several examples of how this framing analysis can be used to address a research question. We consider what effects, if any, a powerful symbolic calculator has on students' thinking. We also consider how to characterize growing expertise among physics students. Framing offers a lens for analysis that is a natural fit for these sample research questions.

To active physics education researchers, the framing analysis presented in this dissertation can provide a useful tool for addressing other research questions. To physics teachers, we present this analysis so that it may make them more explicitly aware of the various types of reasoning, and the dynamics among them, that students employ in our physics classes. This awareness will help us better hear students' arguments and respond appropriately.

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