Research in Science Education

, Volume 48, Issue 1, pp 165–179 | Cite as

The Role of Content Knowledge in Ill-Structured Problem Solving for High School Physics Students

  • Jeff Milbourne
  • Eric Wiebe


While Physics Education Research has a rich tradition of problem-solving scholarship, most of the work has focused on more traditional, well-defined problems. Less work has been done with ill-structured problems, problems that are better aligned with the engineering and design-based scenarios promoted by the Next Generation Science Standards. This study explored the relationship between physics content knowledge and ill-structured problem solving for two groups of high school students with different levels of content knowledge. Both groups of students completed an ill-structured problem set, using a talk-aloud procedure to narrate their thought process as they worked. Analysis of the data focused on identifying students’ solution pathways, as well as the obstacles that prevented them from reaching “reasonable” solutions. Students with more content knowledge were more successful reaching reasonable solutions for each of the problems, experiencing fewer obstacles. These students also employed a greater variety of solution pathways than those with less content knowledge. Results suggest that a student’s solution pathway choice may depend on how she perceives the problem.


Physics Science education Problem-solving Ill-structured problem solving 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

In submitting the paper “The Role of Content Knowledge in Ill-Structured Problem Solving for High School Physics Students,” there are no conflicts of interests involved, no financial support was involved, the listed authors are the sole authors of this paper, and there are no other ethical issues. Subjects of this research were consented and research methodologies utilized approved by the host institution’s Institutional Review Board.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human Animal Rights

Research with human participants was conducted in this reported research and approved by our overseeing Institutional Review Board.

Informed Consent

All human participants in this study provided informed consent.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of EducationNorth Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA

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