Document Type

Theses, Masters


Available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International Licence



Publication Details

Sucessfully submitted for the award of Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) to the Technological University Dublin, 2009.


This phenomenographic study presents a description of the approaches to problem solving and conceptualisation of physics knowledge of introductory physics students, specifically in the context of the Irish higher education system. Much research has been carried out that has shown that physics students are not developing the conceptual knowledge necessary to become adept problem-solvers. This may be due to the traditional physics education assumption that students will develop an understanding of the conceptual nature of physics by repetitively solving quantitative problems. However, research has shown that this is not the case and that education and the curriculum needs to explicitly reflect the qualitative and quantitative nature of physics. This empirical study was conducted using phenomenographic assumptions and methodology to collect, analyse and interpret data from forty two individual semistructured interviews with introductory physics students. This study presents a systematic way of identifying the variations in the students’ approaches to problem solving, the variations in these students’ conceptual awareness, and an assessment of the effect this has on student learning. The findings from this study reveal that novice physics students’ approaches to problem solving can be described by five qualitatively and critically different categories. Also these students’ conceptual awareness in the context of mechanics can be described by four qualitatively and critically different categories. The findings suggest that in order for these students to develop as problem solvers they must have developed an awareness of the conceptual nature of physics. This research provides an insight into and a better understanding of the way introductory physics students approach problem solving and of the development of their conceptual knowledge. It will inform teaching and assessment practices, not only in physics education but also in other disciplines so that higher level education can produce better problemsolvers for industry, research and a knowledge-based society.