Student difficulties with math in physics: Why can't students apply what they learn in math class?*

Richard N. Steinberg
Jeffery M. Saul
Michael C. Wittmann
Edward F. Redish

Physics Education Research Group
University of Maryland

* sponsored in part by NSF grants RED-9355849 and DUE-9455561


Context for this research

Methods of investigation

How do students interpret and apply mathematics in introductory physics?


Students need facility with many mathematical representations in learning introductory physics:

Graphs

Equations

Vectors


Example from electrostatics Midterm Examination (N=95)

Consider a region of space where there is an electric field given by:

where:


Part A: Determine the value of E at the point labeled A.


Student Responses


Part B: Draw electric field lines for this region of space.


Example from mechanical waves
Pretest (N=57) Individual interviews (N=9)

Consider the pulse below at t = 0 moving in the x direction with velocity vo.

The displacement of the spring from its equilibrium position at t = 0 is given by:


Part A: Sketch the shape of the spring after it has traveled a distance xo.

a correct response (pulse displaced, amplitude unchanged)

pretest: 56%; interview: 44%


correct response? (pulse displaced, amplitude decreased)

pretest: 35%; interview: 56%


Part B: Write an equation for y as a function of x when the pulse reaches xo.


Summary

Students have difficulty interpreting and applying mathematical ideas when learning introductory physics.

In the context of equations:


Research-based curriculum

Students, working independently, make predictions about a propagating pulse and its mathematical form.

Students, working in groups:


This page prepared by:
Richard Steinberg

University of Maryland
Physics Department
College Park, MD 20742-4111
(301) 405-6184