Date of Award

Spring 5-12-2017

Level of Access

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master's of Science in Teaching (MST)


Science and Mathematics Education


MacKenzie R. Stetzer

Second Committee Member

Natasha M. Speer

Third Committee Member

John R. Thompson


The effectiveness of scaffolded, research-based instruction in physics has been extensively documented in the literature. However, even after such instruction, students who demonstrate a solid conceptual understanding on one physics task may subsequently perform poorly on another, closely related task requiring the application of that same conceptual understanding. Research on such inconsistencies has suggested that poor performance may primarily be attributed to difficulties related to reasoning rather than those of a conceptual nature. To gain insight into this phenomenon, further work is required, specifically focusing on the design and testing of tasks that may be used to document the extent to which students are able to follow, replicate, evaluate, and generate coherent chains of qualitative inferential reasoning before, during, and after scaffolded, research-based instruction.

In response to this need, we have designed and implemented tasks to assess the extent to which introductory physics students are able to logically follow and interact with the reasoning chains of hypothetical students in a variety of physics contexts. In this thesis, we describe several of these tasks, including a “Follow Reasoning” task in which students are asked to infer the conclusions that would be drawn from different lines of reasoning articulated by hypothetical students and to provide justification for those inferences. We also share work from an experiment in which students were first prompted to answer a physics question before completing a “Follow Reasoning” task, which itself contained reasoning associated with the same physics question (leading to either the correct or an incorrect answer). Finally, we describe the construction, implementation, and analysis of a pair of isomorphic “Follow Reasoning” tasks in which the same lines of reasoning are articulated by hypothetical students but the physics context in which the reasoning is presented is different.

Results show that the majority of students were able to predict the logical concluding statement when provided with a hypothetical student reasoning chain (HSRC), suggesting that they were in fact capable of following the reasoning of others. Several overall trends were identified, and they provided insight into how students interact with HSRCs. In addition, we found that students who demonstrated requisite conceptual understanding were better able to follow correct reasoning leading to the correct answer but showed no such enhancement when considering incorrect reasoning leading to a common incorrect answer. Finally, data collected from isomorphic “Follow Reasoning” tasks suggest that student ability to follow particular lines of reasoning may, in fact, be independent of physics context and content. Key findings from this work have numerous important implications for instruction.