Sayre MST: Resource activation

E.C. Sayre
Advanced Students' Resource Selection in Nearly-Novel Situations
Unpublished M.S.T. thesis, University of Maine, 2005

To better understand the processes of student learning, one of the primary goals of physics education research, researchers build cognitive models. In this thesis I expand and further detail the resources model, a knowledge-in-pieces model of cognition, through the use of two metaphors, maps and graphs.

Resources may be characterized as to type. Metacognitive resources can mediate and expand problem solving strategies and are in turn mediated by epistemological resources about the subject matter at hand. The four resources types - metacognitive, problem solving, epistemological, and content - are therefore deeply tangled.

Maps and graphs, complementary representations of the resources model, provide organizational structure and illustrate core properties of the model. Maps show which resources are relevant to a given situation. Graphs show how those resources can be connected to each other. Maps and graphs also lend language to the analysis of sense-making in nearly-novel situations.

A nearly-novel situation is one that forces students into an area outside of established conceptions – off the map - but still near many resources. Being near many resources means that students will have many opportunities to build graphs by linking resources together to help make sense of a new situation. Being outside of established conceptions means that students will not already have a pat explanation, and therefore will be forced to make sense on-the-fly.

The physics of diode design is an ideal nearly-novel situation in which to study epistemology and metacognition in upper-level physics students: rich in physics ideas, not mathematically complex, and understudied by the population. Because upper-level physics students are a small population, the statistical approach of data analysis is not used. Instead, data are presented in terms of trends and supporting stories.

Through clinical interviews and an iterative survey, students are first questioned about the functions of diodes in circuits, then asked to design a diode given a charge source. The diode identification question serves a necessary orienting purpose for the subsequent design questions, though it does not predict design capability for this population. Following their design, students are asked a series of demographic and teaching questions intended to both probe their previous studies of diodes and suggest possible effects to consider in a redesign of their diodes. Students may then redesign their diode.

Diode designs followed two basic schemes: true diodes and protodiodes. Nine of twenty-five respondents were incapable of designing diodes. Non- designers usually indicated that they could not remember how to design a diode, despite having never studied diode construction. Epistemologically, these students appear to use knowledge-as-rememberable to the exclusion of knowledge-as-derivable in this context.

We find two constraints on successful reasoning in nearly-novel situations. To see a situation as nearly-novel, students must both be familiar with the necessary material and see that material as relevant to the situation at hand - the material must seem to be cognitively nearby. Furthermore, to reason successfully in a nearly-novel situation, the epistemological resource knowledge-as-derivable must not be blocked from activating.