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Student success in solving physics problems is related to the representational format of the problem. We study student representational competence in two large-lecture algebra-based introductory university physics courses with approximately 600 participants total. We examined student performance on homework problems given in four different representational formats (mathematical, pictorial, graphical, verbal), with problem statements as close to isomorphic as possible. In addition to the homeworks, we examine students’ assessment of representations by providing follow-up quizzes in which they chose between various problem formats. As a control, some parts of the classes were assigned a random-format follow-up quiz. We find that there are statistically significant performance differences between different representations of nearly isomorphic statements of quiz and homework problems. We also find that allowing students to choose which representational format they use improves student performance under some circumstances and degrades it in others. Notably, one of the two courses studied shows much greater performance differences between the groups that received a choice of format and those that did not, and we consider possible causes. Overall, we observe that student representational competence is tied to both micro- and macrolevel features of the task and environment.
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