Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Michael C. Wittmann

Second Committee Member

John E. Donovan II

Third Committee Member

Samuel Hess


Physics education research is fundamentally concerned with understanding the processes of student learning and facilitating the development of student understanding. A better understanding of learning processes and outcomes is integral to improving said learning. In this thesis, I detail and expand upon Resource Theory, allowing it to account for the development of resources and connecting the activation and use of resources to experimental data. Resource Theory is a general knowledge-in-pieces schema theory. It bridges cognitive science and education research to describe the phenomenology of problem solving. Resources are small, reusable pieces of thought that make up concepts and arguments. The physical context and cognitive state of the user determine which resources are available to be activated; different people have different resources about different things. Over time, resources may develop, acquiring new meanings as they activate in different situations. In this thesis, I introduce "plasticity," a continuum for describing the development of resources. The plasticity continuum blends elements of Process/Object and Cognitive Science with Resource Theory. The name evokes brain plasticity and myelination (markers of learning power and reasoning speed, respectively) and materials plasticity and solidity (with their attendant properties, deformabihty and stability). In the plasticity continuum, the two directions are more plastic and more solid. More solid resources are more durable and more connected to other resources. Users tend to be more committed to them because reasoning with them has been fruitful in the past. Similarly, users tend not to perform consistency checks on them any more. In contrast, more plastic resources need to be tested against the existing network more often, as users forge links between them and other resources. To explore these expansions and their application, I present several extended examples drawn from an Intermediate Mechanics class. The first extended example comes from damped harmonic motion; the others discuss coordinate system choice for simple pendula. In every case, the richness of student reasoning indicates that a wealth of resources of varying plasticity are in play. To analyze the encounters, a careful and fine-grained theoretical approach is required.