Andrew Heckler
Ohio State University
Department of Physics
How diagrams help and hinder problem solving
This study examines student construction and use of diagrams and equations
to solve traditional physics problems. Student responses are studied under
two conditions: when diagrams are or are not explicitly required. Results
indicate that requiring diagrams can help students by leading them to more
abstract and formal solution paths, but can also hinder performance by
focusing attention on a single solution path, even if incorrect, limiting
their ability to consider alternative solutions. Requiring force diagrams
also compels students to depict incorrect concepts involving force more
frequently in their diagrams. When diagrams are not required, students
tend to draw them nevertheless and tend to depict only the concrete and
salient features of the stated problem. In turn, these students tend to
follow solution paths based on these concrete and physically intuitive
features. Finally, diagrams are found to be more consistent with the
students' equation paths when diagrams are not required, indicating that
the extent to which student-produced diagrams or equations reflect student
understanding depends on the task required.