Hayes and Wittmann on the use of signs

K. Hayes and M. C. Wittmann
The Role of Sign in Students' Modeling of Scalar Equations
The Physics Teacher 48, 246 (2010)

Helping students set up equations is one of the major goals of teaching a course in physics that contains elements of problem solving. Students must take the stories we present, interpret them, and turn them into physics; from there, they must turn that physical, idealized story into mathematics. How they do so and what problems lie along the way are a major source of difficulty for us as instructors. In this paper, we consider just one such difficulty, getting the plus and minus signs correct when setting a net force equal to mass times acceleration. Even in such simple equations, we find that students make common errors in how they connect the mathematics and the physics. Specifically, we have seen college physics students use physical and mathematical reasoning inconsistently when determining signs of terms in equations. The problem seems to lie in how a vector equation gets interpreted into a scalar equation (whose form depends on one's choice of coordinate system).