Connecting symbolic difficulties with failure in physics.
Torigoe, E.T.; Gladding, G.E.. American Journal of Physics, v 79, n 1, p 133-40, Jan. 2011
We find that symbolic physics questions are significantly more difficult than their analogous numerical versions. Very few of the errors are due to manipulation errors of the symbolic equations. Instead, most errors are due to confusions of symbolic meaning. We also find that performance on symbolic questions is more highly correlated with the overall performance than performance on numeric questions. We devised a coding scheme that distinguishes questions based only on the mathematical structure of the solutions. The coding scheme can be used to identify both difficult and discriminating physics questions. The questions identified by this coding scheme require an algebraic representation and discourage problem solving strategies that do not require an understanding of symbolic equations. Our results suggest that an inability to interpret physicsequations may be a major contributor to student failure in introductory physics.