How Students Combine Resources to Make Conceptual Breakthroughs

  • A. J. Richards
  • Darrick C. Jones
  • Eugenia Etkina


We use the framework of cognitive resources to investigate how students construct understanding of a complex physics topic, namely, a photovoltaic cell. By observing students as they learn about how a solar cell functions, we identified over 60 distinct resources that learners may activate while thinking about photovoltaic cells. We classify these resources into three main types: phenomenological primitives, conceptual resources, and epistemological resources. Furthermore, we found a pattern that suggests that when students make conceptual breakthroughs they may be more likely to activate combinations of resources of different types in concert, especially if a resource from each of the three categories is used. This pattern suggests that physics instructors should encourage students to activate multiple types of prior knowledge during the learning process. This can result from instructors deliberately and explicitly connecting new knowledge to students’ prior experience both in and outside the formal physics classroom, as well as allowing students to reflect metacognitively on how the new knowledge fits into their existing understanding of the natural world.


Cognitive resources Advanced undergraduate Physics Solar cells 



We are indebted to David Hammer for his help with the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The College of New JerseyEwingUSA
  2. 2.Rutgers UniversityPiscatawayUSA

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