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The Role of Mathematics in Learning Physics
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy. University of the Western Cape. (Division for Physics Education Research)
2016 (English)Conference paper, Presentation (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

This presentation was given at the launch conference and retreat for the Graduate school in subject education research held at Friiberghs Herrgård, Örsundsbro, Upplands, Sweden, Sept 5 – 6, 2016. The aim was to present my initial formulation of my research problem and to introduce the main theoretical bases, proposed methodologies and potential research questions.

Recent PER work has begun to produce compelling evidence that many physics students lack essential parts of mathematics conceptual understanding, which results in severely limiting the possibility of working appropriately and/or productively with problem solving, and/or effect further advanced learning in a range of negative ways (e.g., Christensen & Thompson, 2012). Of interest from a contextually relevant perspective, is the dire state of mathematics education at upper secondary and introductory university levels in South Africa, and how this situation is most likely having a negative effect on physics teaching and learning. The broad aim then of my PhD study is to embark on a series of studies that explore the teaching and learning relations between mathematical knowledge and constructing appropriate ways of understanding and applying physics. The theoretical framing will build on the work of Airey & Linder (2009), who argued that in undergraduate physics there is a critical constellation of semiotic resources that are needed in order to make appropriate learning possible. By semiotic resources is meant language, graphs, diagrams, laboratory work, apparatus, mathematics, etc. Duval (2006) argues that whilst many teachers focus on teaching mathematical operations (what he calls treatment), the main problem occurs in the movement between one semiotic system and another (what he terms conversion). This movement between the various modes of representing a discipline is termed as transduction by Gunther Kress (1997). A number of researchers have identified this movement as critical for the ability to do physics (e.g. Lemke, 1998; Van Heuvelen, 1991; Mc Dermott 1990). This study will investigate the teaching and learning relations between semiotic resources in mathematics and physics. Video and interview data will be collected of students working with experimental design that potentially encourages transduction, with a strong possibility for comparative data collection in Sweden and South Africa.


Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2009). A disciplinary discourse perspective on university science learning: Achieving fluency in a critical constellation of modes. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(1), 27-49.

Christensen W., & Thompson J. (2012). Investigating graphical representations of slope and derivative without a physics context. Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 8, 023101.

Duval, R. (2006) A cognitive analysis of problems of comprehension in a learning of mathematics. Educational Studies in Mathematics (2006) 61: 103–131.

Kress, G. (1997). Before Writing: Rethinking the Paths to Literacy. London & New York: Routledge.

Lemke, J. L. (1998). Teaching all the languages of science: Words, symbols, images, and actions. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/education/jlemke/papers/barcelon.htm.

McDermott, L. (1990). A view from physics. In M. Gardner, J. G. Greeno, F. Reif, A. H. Schoenfeld, A. A. diSessa, & E. Stage (Eds.), Toward a scientific practice of science education (pp. 3-30). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Van Heuvelen, A. (1991). Learning to think like a physicist: A review of research-based instructional strategies. American Journal of Physics, 59(10), 891-897.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
semiotic resources, critical constellations, transduction, mathematics education, physics education
National Category
Other Physics Topics
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-302646OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-302646DiVA: diva2:971555
First meeting of Graduate School in subject education research, Friiberghs Herrgård,Örsundsbro, Sept 5-6, 2016
Available from: 2016-09-16 Created: 2016-09-07 Last updated: 2016-09-16Bibliographically approved

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