Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

David Rabson, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Jennifer Lewis, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Gerald Woods, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Martin Muschol, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Garrett Matthews, Ph.D.


conceptual gains, geometry, Newton's Laws, physics education


Students bring their logical reasoning and previous knowledge to the study of physics. Previous studies have examined types and levels of students’ reasoning as applied to answering conceptual physics questions. This study compared the van Hiele theory of levels of logic in two different disciplines: school geometry and conceptual physics. Two research approaches were employed: quantitative and qualitative analysis. In a quantitative approach, the van Hiele geometry test’s correlation to gains in conceptual physics understanding, as measured by the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), was compared to Lawson’s Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning (CTSR), SAT, ACT, and a general algebra facility test’s correlation to those gains. Though the tests all had roughly the same correlation with the FCI normalized gain, the hierarchical structure of the van Hiele test gave a different perspective on cognitive resource use and conceptual gains. An additional insight from the quantitative analysis revealed that previous physics instruction in high school, or lack of such instruction, had no effect on the gain in conceptual understanding of physics.

In a qualitative approach, student responses were compared, in the context of the resources framework, for questions from the van Hiele geometry test and the Force Concept Inventory. At each of the levels, student verbal explanations in interviews showed comparable logical reasoning in evaluating each recalled bit of knowledge applicable to a question in either discipline. Inconsistent activation occurred in both contexts and aligned with previous studies in physics education research.

The results of the quantitative and qualitative approaches complement each other and support the idea of geometric logic being applicable to physics. Our synthesis of van Hiele logic levels and the resource framework leads us to go beyond the binary classification of process resources in dual-processing theory. The results suggest that instructional models used in guiding students to improved van Hiele levels of reasoning could be explored to aid in improving instruction of conceptual physics. An example with Newton’ Third Law is included.