Theses Doctoral

Calculus Misconceptions of Undergraduate Students

McDowell, Yonghong L.

It is common for students to make mistakes while solving mathematical problems. Some of these mistakes might be caused by the false ideas, or misconceptions, that students developed during their learning or from their practice.

Calculus courses at the undergraduate level are mandatory for several majors. The introductory course of calculus—Calculus I—requires fundamental skills. Such skills can prepare a student for higher-level calculus courses, additional higher-division mathematics courses, and/or related disciplines that require comprehensive understanding of calculus concepts. Nevertheless, conceptual misunderstandings of undergraduate students exist universally in learning calculus. Understanding the nature of and reasons for how and why students developed their conceptual misunderstandings—misconceptions—can assist a calculus educator in implementing effective strategies to help students recognize or correct their misconceptions.

For this purpose, the current study was designed to examine students’ misconceptions in order to explore the nature of and reasons for how and why they developed their misconceptions through their thought process. The study instrument—Calculus Problem-Solving Tasks (CPSTs)—was originally created for understanding the issues that students had in learning calculus concepts; it features a set of 17 open-ended, non-routine calculus problem-solving tasks that check students’ conceptual understanding. The content focus of these tasks was pertinent to the issues undergraduate students encounter in learning the function concept and the concepts of limit, tangent, and differentiation that scholars have subsequently addressed. Semi-structured interviews with 13 mathematics college faculty were conducted to verify content validity of CPSTs and to identify misconceptions a student might exhibit when solving these tasks. The interview results were analyzed using a standard qualitative coding methodology. The instrument was finalized and developed based on faculty’s perspectives about misconceptions for each problem presented in the CPSTs.

The researcher used a qualitative methodology to design the research and a purposive sampling technique to select participants for the study. The qualitative means were helpful in collecting three sets of data: one from the semi-structured college faculty interviews; one from students’ explanations to their solutions; and the other one from semi-structured student interviews. In addition, the researcher administered two surveys (Faculty Demographic Survey for college faculty participants and Student Demographic Survey for student participants) to learn about participants’ background information and used that as evidence of the qualitative data’s reliability. The semantic analysis techniques allowed the researcher to analyze descriptions of faculty’s and students’ explanations for their solutions. Bar graphs and frequency distribution tables were presented to identify students who incorrectly solved each problem in the CPSTs.

Seventeen undergraduate students from one northeastern university who had taken the first course of calculus at the undergraduate level solved the CPSTs. Students’ solutions were labeled according to three categories: CA (correct answer), ICA (incorrect answer), and NA (no answer); the researcher organized these categories using bar graphs and frequency distribution tables. The explanations students provided in their solutions were analyzed to isolate misconceptions from mistakes; then the analysis results were used to develop student interview questions and to justify selection of students for interviews. All participants exhibited some misconceptions and substantial mistakes other than misconceptions in their solutions and were invited to be interviewed. Five out of the 17 participants who majored in mathematics participated in individual semi-structured interviews. The analysis of the interview data served to confirm their misconceptions and identify their thought process in problem solving. Coding analysis was used to develop theories associated with the results from both college faculty and student interviews as well as the explanations students gave in solving problems. The coding was done in three stages: the first, or initial coding, identified the mistakes; the second, or focused coding, separated misconceptions from mistakes; and the third elucidated students’ thought processes to trace their cognitive obstacles in problem solving.

Regarding analysis of student interviews, common patterns from students’ cognitive conflicts in problem solving were derived semantically from their thought process to explain how and why students developed the misconceptions that underlay their mistakes. The nature of how students solved problems and the reasons for their misconceptions were self-directed and controlled by their memories of concept images and algorithmic procedures. Students seemed to lack conceptual understanding of the calculus concepts discussed in the current study in that they solved conceptual problems as they would solve procedural problems by relying on fallacious memorization and familiarity. Meanwhile, students have not mastered the basic capacity to generalize and abstract; a majority of them failed to translate the semantics and transliterate mathematical notations within the problem context and were unable to synthesize the information appropriately to solve problems.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Karp, Alexander P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 16, 2021