Studies of visual attention in physics problem solving



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Kansas State University


The work described here represents an effort to understand and influence visual attention while solving physics problems containing a diagram. Our visual system is guided by two types of processes -- top-down and bottom-up. The top-down processes are internal and determined by ones prior knowledge and goals. The bottom-up processes are external and determined by features of the visual stimuli such as color, and luminance contrast. When solving physics problems both top-down and bottom-up processes are active, but to varying degrees. The existence of two types of processes opens several interesting questions for physics education. For example, how do bottom-up processes influence problem solvers in physics? Can we leverage these processes to draw attention to relevant diagram areas and improve problem-solving? In this dissertation we discuss three studies that investigate these open questions and rely on eye movements as a primary data source. We assume that eye movements reflect a person’s moment-to-moment cognitive processes, providing a window into one’s thinking. In our first study, we compared the way correct and incorrect solvers viewed relevant and novice-like elements in a physics problem diagram. We found correct solvers spent more time attending to relevant areas while incorrect solvers spent more time looking at novice-like areas. In our second study, we overlaid these problems with dynamic visual cues to help students’ redirect their attention. We found that in some cases these visual cues improved problem-solving performance and influenced visual attention. To determine more precisely how the perceptual salience of diagram elements influenced solvers’ attention, we conducted a third study where we manipulated the perceptual salience of the diagram elements via changes in luminance contrast. These changes did not influence participants’ answers or visual attention. Instead, similar to our first study, the time spent looking in various areas of the diagram was related to the correctness of an answer. These results suggest that top-down processes dominate while solving physics problems. In sum, the study of visual attention and visual cueing in particular shows that attention is an important component of physics problem-solving and can potentially be leveraged to improve student performance.



Physics education, Visual attention, Problem solving, Eye movements

Graduation Month



Doctor of Philosophy


Department of Physics

Major Professor

N. Sanjay Rebello