Symbols: Weapons of Math Destruction
2007 Physics Education Research Conference, AIP Conf. Proceedings
This paper is part of an ongoing investigation of how students use and understand mathematics in introductory physics. Our previous research  revealed that differences in score as large as 50% can be observed between numeric and symbolic versions of the same question. We have expanded our study of numeric and symbolic differences to include 10 pairs of questions on a calculus based introductory physics final exam. We find that not all physics problems exhibit such large differences and that in the cases where a large difference is observed that the largest difference occurs for the poorest students. With these 10 questions we have been able to develop phenomenological categories to characterize the properties of each of the questions. We will discuss what question properties are necessary to observe differences in score on the numeric and symbolic versions.We will also discuss what insights these categories give us about how students think about and use symbols in physics.