Publication Type:

Journal Article


Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res., Volume 15, p.020124 (2019)



We present an empirical analysis of students’ use of partial derivatives in the context of problem solving in upper-division thermodynamics. Task-based individual interviews were conducted with eight middle-division physics students. The interviews involved finding a partial derivative from information presented in a table and a contour plot. Using thematic analysis, we classified student problem-solving strategies into two principal categories: the analytical derivation strategy and the graphical analysis strategy. We developed a new flowchartlike analysis method: representational transformation. Our analysis of students’ strategies using this method revealed three types of transformation phenomena: translation, consolidation, and dissociation. Students in this study did not seem to have much difficulty with the concepts underlying the partial derivative; instead, they seemed to have difficulty with the transformation phenomena, particularly the consolidation of multiple representations into a single representation.