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The literature on physics education research (PER) promotes the use of multiple representations (such as pictures, diagrams, written explanations, and mathematical expressions) to enhance the problem-solving ability of students through instruction. The purpose of this study was to explore the use of a scaffolding strategy that involved the use of multiple representation tasks in problem-solving in a modeling physics class in high school. Another class with similar background was selected as a comparison group. In 12 in-depth problem-solving interviews of students drawn from the two classes, I investigated in detail how the students responded to the multiple representations tasks and how it affected their problem-solving performance, use of representations, and the quality of their representations compared to students who were not guided to generate representations in solving similar problems. Aggregate data on student problem-solving performance and use of representations was collected from 14 study problems and crosschecked with findings from cognitive interviews. I found that more students from the scaffolding group constructed visual representations in their problem-solving solutions, while their use of other representations did not differ with that of the comparison group.
Despite the increase in the use of visual representations, there was no observed improvement in problem-solving performance relative to the comparison group. Also, analysis of the problem-solving work of the relatively successful problem solvers in both groups showed that their visual representations are accurate translations of physics concepts. The data from the interviews revealed that students do not believe that it is necessary to write down physics concepts because visual representations help them more in problem-solving. I found that the relatively similar performance in problem-solving of both groups can be attributed to shared misconceptions and common novice-like problem-solving behaviors that were not addressed by the utilized scaffolding strategy.
Adviser: Elizabeth B. Lewis