Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Chemistry/Chemistry Education Research

First Advisor

Hannah Sevian

Second Advisor

Jason Green

Third Advisor

Jonathan Rochford


Productive problem solving, concept construction, and sense making occur through the core process of abstraction. Although the capacity for domain-general abstraction is developed at a young age, the role of abstraction in increasingly complex and disciplinary environments, such as those encountered in undergraduate STEM education, is not well understood. Undergraduate physical chemistry relies particularly heavily on abstraction because it uses many overlapping and imperfect mathematical models to represent and interpret phenomena occurring on multiple scales. To reconcile these models, extract meaning from them, and recognize when to apply them in problem solving requires processes of abstraction. This dissertation aims to develop a framework that can be used to make abstraction in physical chemistry visible to better understand how undergraduate physical chemistry students navigate these processes and abstract in problem solving scenarios.

Using an activity theoretical lens, this dissertation has three aims: (1) to operationalize abstraction as a series of epistemic actions, and to use this operationalization to investigate (2) what motivates and influences whether abstraction is realized in the moment, and (3) the role abstraction plays in physical chemistry instruction. First, problem solving teaching interviews with individuals and pairs (n=18) on thermodynamics and kinetics topics are analyzed using a constant comparative approach. The resulting Epistemic Actions of Abstraction framework characterizes eight epistemic actions along two dimensions: increasing abstractness relative to the context (concretizing, manipulating, restructuring, and generalizing) and nature of the object the action operates on (conceptual or symbolic). These teaching interviews are then inductively analyzed to identify what sparks abstraction and the influence of interaction on abstraction. Three types of needs (task-directed, situational-insufficient, and situational-emergent), and three major themes (framing, interviewer intervention, and peer interaction) are found. Finally, a multiple-case study of physical chemistry instructors (n=2) at two different institutions is conducted to investigate how and why instructors model abstraction. Analysis of classroom video and video-stimulated recall interviews yields two identified roles abstraction plays in physical chemistry instruction: developing mathematical tools grounded in conceptual understanding, and developing conceptual understanding grounded in mathematics. Implications for research and teaching are discussed.