Categorization and Representation of Physics Problems by Experts and Novices


  • This research program, conducted at the Learning Research and Development center, is supported in part by contract no.N00014-78-C-0375, NR 157-421 of the Office of Naval Research and in part by the National Institute of Education. Portions of this paper were presented by the first author at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, April 1979, and at the meeting of the Psychonomic Society, Phoenix, November 1979. The authors are grateful for the help of Andrew Judkis. Ted Rees, and Chridopher Roth, for comments, data collection, analysis, and citing. We particularly appreciate the generosity of the physics professors and graduate students who contributed their time, especially Ned S. VanderVen. Jill Larkin deserves special thanks for her contributions and insightful comments to Study Four.

Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15260


The representation of physics problems in relation to the organization of physics knowledge is investigated in experts and novices. Four experiments examine (a) the existence of problem categories as a basis for representation; (b) differences in the categories used by experts and novices; (c) differences in the knowledge associated with the categories; and (d) features in the problems that contribute to problem categorization and representation. Results from sorting tasks and protocols reveal that experts and novices begin their problem representations with specifiably different problem categories, and completion of the representations depends on the knowledge associated with the categories. For, the experts initially abstract physics principles to approach and solve a problem representation, whereas novices base their representation and approaches on the problem's literal features.