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Students' overuse of linearity: An exploration in physics

By Dirk De Bock, Wim Van Dooren and Lieven Verschaffel


A vast amount of research in mathematics education has shown that students of different ages have a strong tendency to apply linear or proportional models anywhere, even in situations where they are not applicable. For example, in geometry it is known that many students believe that if the sides of a figure are doubled, the area is doubled too. History of science also provides several cases of thinkers who inadequately postulated linear relations to describe situations. This article focuses on secondary school students’ over-reliance on linearity in physics. Now and then, science educators report students’ tendency to assume and impose linear relations in physics, but – as far as we know – no substantial efforts were undertaken to study this phenomenon in a systematic empirical way. To fill up this hiatus in the science education literature, we report in this article on an empirical investigation aimed at identifying the competence of 8th- and 11th-graders – before and after being taught the relevant physical topics – to qualitatively grasp situations in physics, as well as their tendency to quantify linearly that qualitative insight. The results provide an ambivalent picture of students’ overuse of linearity in physics: although linear reasoning is sometimes used as a default strategy, even after instruction that addresses the relevant physical contents, this study also indicates that context is taken more into account than is suggested by research on mathematical problem solving.

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