Date of Award

Summer 8-20-2021

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John R. Thompson

Second Committee Member

Michael E. Loverude

Third Committee Member

Asli Sezen-Barrie

Additional Committee Members

MacKenzie R. Stetzer

Michael Wittmann


One expected outcome of physics instruction is that students develop quantitative reasoning skills, including evaluation of problem solutions. To investigate students’ use of evaluation strategies, we developed and administered tasks prompting students to check the validity of a given expression. We collected written (N>673) and interview (N=31) data at the introductory, sophomore, and junior levels. Tasks were administered in three different physics contexts: the velocity of a block at the bottom of an incline with friction, the electric field due to three point charges of equal magnitude, and the final velocities of two masses in an elastic collision. Responses were analyzed using modified grounded theory and phenomenology. In these three contexts, we explored different facets of students’ use and understanding of evaluation strategies. First, we document and analyze the various evaluation strategies students use when prompted, comparing to canonical strategies. Second, we describe how the identified strategies relate to prior work, with particular emphasis on how a strategy we describe as grouping relates to the phenomenon of chunking as described in cognitive science. Finally, we examine how the prevalence of these strategies varies across different levels of the physics curriculum. From our quantitative data, we found that while all the surveyed student populations drew from the same set of evaluation strategies, the percentage of students who used sophisticated evaluation strategies was higher in the sophomore and junior/senior student populations than in the first-year population. From our case studies of two pair interviews (one pair of first years, and one pair of juniors), we found that that while evaluating an expression, both juniors and first-years performed similar actions. However, while the first-year students focused on computation and checked for arithmetic consistency with the laws of physics, juniors checked for computational correctness and probed whether the equation accurately described the physical world and obeyed the laws of physics. Our case studies suggest that a key difference between expert and novice evaluation is that experts extract physical meaning from their result and make sense of them by comparing them to other representations of laws of physics, and real-life experience. We conclude with remarks including implications for classroom instruction as well as suggestions for future work.