NotesFAQContact Us
Search Tips
Peer reviewed Peer reviewed
Direct linkDirect link
ERIC Number: EJ1083311
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2015
Pages: 13
Abstractor: As Provided
ISSN: EISSN-1554-9178
Upper-Division Student Difficulties with Separation of Variables
Wilcox, Bethany R.; Pollock, Steven J.
Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, v11 n2 p020131-1-020131-13 Jul-Dec 2015
Separation of variables can be a powerful technique for solving many of the partial differential equations that arise in physics contexts. Upper-division physics students encounter this technique in multiple topical areas including electrostatics and quantum mechanics. To better understand the difficulties students encounter when utilizing the separation of variables technique, we examined students' responses to midterm exam questions and a standardized conceptual assessment and conducted think-aloud, problem-solving interviews. Our analysis was guided by an analytical framework that focuses on how students activate, construct, execute, and reflect on the separation of variables technique when solving physics problems. Here we focus on student difficulties with separation of variables as a technique to solve Laplace's equation in both Cartesian and spherical coordinates in the context of junior-level electrostatics. Challenges include recognizing when separation of variables is the appropriate tool, recalling or justifying the separated form of the potential and the need for the infinite sum, identifying implicit boundary conditions, and spontaneously reflecting on their solutions. Moreover, the type and frequency of errors was often different for separation of variables problems in Cartesian and spherical geometries. We also briefly discuss implication of these findings for instruction.
American Physical Society. One Physics Ellipse 4th Floor, College Park, MD 20740-3844. Tel: 301-209-3200; Fax: 301-209-0865; e-mail:; Web site:
Publication Type: Journal Articles; Reports - Research
Education Level: Higher Education; Postsecondary Education
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: National Science Foundation (NSF)
Authoring Institution: N/A
Identifiers - Location: Colorado
Grant or Contract Numbers: DUE1023028; DGE1144083