The role of mathematics in first year students’ understanding of electricity problems in physics

by Reuben Double Koontse

Institution: University of South Africa
Year: 2015
Keywords: First year physics students; Mathematics in physics; Mathematical resources; Intuitive mathematics; Reasoning primitives; Extended semantic model; Electricity problems; Students understanding
Record ID: 1480906
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10500/18602


Mathematics plays a pertinent role in physics. Students' understanding of this role has significant implications in their understanding of physics. Studies have shown that some students prefer the use of mathematics in learning physics. Other studies show mathematics as a barrier in students' learning of physics. In this study the role of mathematics in students' understanding of electricity problems was examined. The study undertakes a qualitative approach, and is based on an intepretivist research paradigm. A survey administered to students was used to establish students' expectations on the use of mathematics in physics. Focus group interviews were conducted with the students to further corroborate their views on the use of mathematics in physics. Copies of students' test scripts were made for analysis on students' actual work, applying mathematics as they were solving electricity problems. Analysis of the survey and interview data showed students' views being categorised into what they think it takes to learn physics, and what they think about the use of mathematics in physics. An emergent response was that students think that, problem solving in physics means finding the right equation to use. Students indicated that they sometimes get mathematical answers whose meaning they do not understand, while others maintained that they think that mathematics and physics are inseparable. Application of a tailor-made conceptual framework (MATHRICITY) on students work as they were solving electricity problems, showed activation of all the original four mathematical resources (intuitive knowledge, reasoning primitives, symbolic forms and interpretive devices). Two new mathematical resources were identified as retrieval cues and sense of instructional correctness. In general, students were found to be more inclined to activate formal mathematical rules, even when the use of basic or everyday day mathematics that require activation of intuitive knowledge elements and reasoning primitives, would be more efficient. Students' awareness of the domains of knowledge, which was a measure of their understanding, was done through the Extended Semantic Model. Students' awareness of the four domains (concrete, model, abstract, and symbolic) was evident as they were solving the electricity questions. The symbolic domain, which indicated students' awareness of the use of symbols to represent a problem, was the most prevalent.