Date of Award

Spring 5-10-2019

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John R. Thompson

Second Committee Member

Michael Wittmann

Third Committee Member

Brian Frank

Additional Committee Members

Natasha Speer

Johnathan Shemwell


Assessing students’ understanding of physics is a critical element for improving physics education. This dissertation presents and demonstrates a method to better assess student understanding of physics by varying the types of questions asked of students. The method presented herein, which is based on the Specific Difficulties and Resources frameworks, involves modifying the task students are asked to complete when analyzing the physics of a particular physical situation. Creating question variations that ask students to address a particular correct or incorrect outcome of the physical situation, eliminate an incorrect outcome, or justify a correct outcome provided to them can provide more information about students’ physics ideas. This dissertation applies this methodology across multiple content areas to see how often these question variations elicit novel ideas as well as investigate patterns in students’ responses to these different variations across multiple content areas. These variations provide a more detailed view of students’ ideas by demonstrating that students use some ideas exclusively in response to variations or that they use ideas differently. In some cases, providing students with the correct outcome and asking them to justify it demonstrates that students can sometimes express correct reasoning to support the correct response more often than when it is not provided. Other times students treat the provided correct outcome as anomalous data and disagree with it, or accept it and use it as the basis for their reasoning. Furthermore, students are able to develop unique reasoning to justify why an outcome is not what occurs; and asking students to justify or eliminate the response “zero” often leads to a difference in the ideas they express. Finally, the results identify response options that a majority of a class has ideas to both justify and eliminate. The additional information gathered from asking question variations has the potential to impact research by providing new tools to investigate students’ ideas, and to improve instruction by informing instructors about students’ ideas.