These investigations were conducted to examine the relationship between problem-solving ability and the criteria used to decide that two classical mechanics problems would be solved similarly. We began by comparing experts and novices on a similarity judgment task and found that the experts predominantly relied on the problems’ deep structures in deciding on similarity of solution, although the presence of surface-feature similarity had a clear adverse effect on performance. The novices relied predominantly on surface features, but were capable of using the problems’ deep structures under certain conditions. In a second experiment, we compared groups of novices, at the same level of experience, who tended to employ different types of reasoning in making similarity judgments. Compared to novices who relied predominantly on surface features, novices who made greater use of principles tended to categorize problems similarly to how experts categorized them, as well as score higher in problem solving. These results suggest that principles play a fundamental role in the organization of conceptual and procedural knowledge for good problem solvers at all levels.

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© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 1989