Student reasoning about the divergence of a vector field

Charles Baily, Cecilia Astolfi

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

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Expanding our knowledge of student difficulties in advanced undergraduate electromagnetism is essential if we are to develop effective instructional interventions. Drawing on an analysis of course materials, in-class observations and responses to conceptual questions, we document specific resources employed by students when reasoning about the divergence of a vector field. One common student error, which persisted in our course despite explicit instruction, is to misinterpret any "spreading out" of field lines in a diagram as representing a place of non-zero divergence. Some of these student difficulties can likely be attributed to having first learned about the divergence in a mathematical context, where there was little emphasis on graphical representations of vector fields and connections to physical situations.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2014 Physics Education Research Conference
EditorsPaula V. Engelhardt, Alice D. Churukian, Dyan L. Jones
PublisherAmerican Association of Physics Teachers
Number of pages4
ISBN (Print)978-1-931024-23-5
Publication statusPublished - 28 Apr 2015
EventPhysics Education Research Conference 2014 - University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN, United States
Duration: 30 Jul 201431 Jul 2014

Publication series

NamePERC Proceedings
PublisherAmerican Association of Physics Teachers
ISSN (Print)1539-9028
ISSN (Electronic)2377-2379


ConferencePhysics Education Research Conference 2014
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityMinneapolis, MN


  • Physics education research
  • Electromagnetism
  • Divergence
  • Mathematics
  • Conceptual understanding


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