K-State Physics & Psychology Faculty Receive NSF Funding

Sanjay Rebello and Lester Loschky
Sanjay Rebello, Physics and Lester Loschky, Psychology

Sanjay Rebello (Principal Investigator), Associate Professor of Physics, and Lester Loschky (Co-PI), Associate Professor of Psychology, have received a grant from the National Science Foundation Division of Research on FIRE: Exploring Visual Cueing to Facilitate Problem Solving in Physics.  This three-year award began October 1, 2011.  The project builds on research done by Physics Ph.D. student Adrian Madsen, and Psychology Ph.D. student Adam Larson, under the guidance of Professors Rebello and Loschky.

Vision is a critically important medium of communication. Students are continuously bombarded with images on television, cell phones and during instruction. Although well-designed images can facilitate learning, poorly designed images can hinder learning. This project tests the hypothesis that appropriately designed visual cues provided on physics problems, can improve students physics problem solving skills. This project strengthens an existing partnership between a cognitive psychologist mentor and physics education researcher mentee to test the above hypothesis through a sequence of two studies with a total of 150 participants enrolled in introductory algebra-based physics courses. An expert panel of two cognitive psychologists, Dr. David Irwin and Dr. Brian Ross, and a physics education researcher, Dr. Jose Mestre, all of University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, will serve as the Advisory Board and external evaluators.


This project is one of the first of its kind to explore and exploit the link between cognition and eye movements in the context of physics problem solving. Although this project focuses on problem solving in physics, the results of the research have implications for learning in other STEM disciplines where the use of images is important. Beyond its immediate scope, the project will benefit the field of physics education research by infusing ideas from cognitive psychology regarding visual cueing into physics education research, It will also potentially change the ways visual media are used in physics and other STEM instruction to more effectively facilitate students' learning.


The first study will identify differences in the eye movements of physics experts and novices while solving physics problems with diagrams. Participants will solve introductory physics problems including diagrams whose spatial structure is intimately connected to their solution. This first study will use eye movement measures to test the hypothesis that experts focus on the relevant areas of diagrams, whereas novices tend to focus on the irrelevant areas. The second study will test the hypothesis that visual cueing can change where novices look in diagrams, and thereby improve their problem solving performance. Two graduate students, one each from Physics and Psychology, will be funded to work on this project under the guidance of the principal investigators.