Quick Links

Physics education research (PER)

Physics Education Research (PER) approaches the teaching of physics as a scientific problem. The past 25 years or so have seen the development of a whole research community devoted to physics education. This interdisciplinary community is composed of science educators (whose main goal is the development and trial of pre-college instructional materials and methods), cognitive psychologists (whose focus is on the actual thought processes involved in learning), and physicists/physics instructors (whose primary motivation is in improving physics teaching in higher education). These pages are meant to assist those in the latter category who may be interested in the application of the results of Physics Education Research to the teaching of their undergraduate courses. The following material has been been organized around those issues that are relevant to various aspects of course design.

Aspects of Physics Course Design & Implementation

Students' Attitudes, Background & Expectations:

What is the prior knowledge and past experience of the students? How do their attitudes, beliefs and expectations affect their learning?

Most large universities offer courses in introductory physics, both for pure and applied science majors and for health science students. Faculty are well aware that students come into a course with background preparation and knowledge that can be quite varied. The relevant formal background is high school mathematics and physical science. Work by Sadler et al. [1] has shown that previous physics courses have only a small relation with college physics achievement, but there is a somewhat greater correlation with previous high school calculus. Meltzer [2] has shown that there is a correlation between students' normalized learning gain and their preinstruction mathematics skills. Nguyen and Meltzer [3] have investigated students' understanding of vector concepts in both algebra- and calculus-based courses, and found significant conceptual difficulties in both groups.

Physics education research has shown that students' attitudes, beliefs and expectations about the subject matter, the course or even about learning itself in general, can greatly influence the way in which they learn the new material they are being taught. Research into student attitudes across a semester course in the Maryland Physics Expectations (MPEX) Survey by Redish et al. [4] showed a deterioration in class expectations across the semester. Research by Elby [5] shows that students' beliefs about what it means to learn or understand physics should be carefully separated from their expectations about what they must do to get a good grade in their physics course.

Most of the students in these classes were in their first year of university, making the transition from high school. Often their previous experiences had reinforced naive notions about what learning entails; rote learning, memorization without comprehension, minimization of the effort required, etc., were nevertheless expected to be "successful" strategies (i.e. yielding high grades). These attitudes have been found to be deeply-entrenched and very resistant to change, especially if such past learning methods seemed to work "well enough".

What is also relevant when analyzing the initial state of students entering a physics course is the students' casual day-to-day experiences and the preconceptions they hold. Students typically enter a class with physically incorrect and/or inconsistent alternative conceptions about the workings of the world around them [6]. Nevertheless, after a conventional lecture-based introductory physics or astronomy course (and regardless of the instructor), many of these ideas persist and may indeed coexist alongside the correct models that the students supposedly learnt in the course. These misconceptions exist for both physics majors and non-majors. Redish's essay [7] reviews some of the lessons to be learned from cognitive studies, while McDermott's guest comment [8] sets out some well-accepted generalizations about physics teaching and learning. For specifics on these misconceptions, see the Course Content section, below.

References on Students' Attitudes, Background & Expectations:

  1. Success in Introductory Physics: The Role of High-School Preparation, P. Sadler and R. Tai, Sci. Ed. 85: 111-136, 2001. Available here, as well as The role of high-school physics in preparing students for college physics, Sadler, P.M., & Tai, R.H., The Physics Teacher, 35, 282-285 (1997).
  2. The relationship between mathematics preparation and conceptual learning gains in physics: A possible "hidden variable" in diagnostic pretest scores by D.E. Meltzer, Am. J. Phys. 70 (12), December 2002. Available here
  3. Initial understanding of vector concepts among students in introductory physics courses, Ngoc-Loan Nguyen and David E. Meltzer, Am. J. Phys. 71 (6), June 2003. Available here
  4. Student Expectations in Introductory Physics, E.F. Redish, J.M. Saul, and R.N. Steinberg, Am. J. Phys. 66 (3), 212-224, (1998). Available here
  5. Another reason that physics students learn by rote, Andrew Elby, Phys. Educ. Res., Am. J. Phys. Suppl. 67 (7), S54-S64, July 1999. Available here
  6. The Initial Knowledge State of College Physics Students, I.A. Halloun and D. Hestenes, Am. J. Phys., 53 (11) 1043-55 (1985). Available here
  7. The Implications of Cognitive Studies for Teaching Physics, E. Redish, Am. J. Phys. 62(6), 796-803 (1994). Available here
  8. Guest Comment: How we teach and how students learn - a mismatch? by Lillian C. McDermott, Am. J. Phys. 61 (4), April 1993. Available here.

Course Content and Problem-Solving:

What are the typical issues or topics with which students have difficulty? How can students be taught to solve problems and think like a physicist?

A lot of research has focused on conceptual difficulties with particular content topics, such as mechanics [9, 10], electricity and magnetism [11], optics [12, 13] and relativity [14]. A large body of literature has shown that students come with pre-existing mental models of "physics", which are then deformed to accommodate the new knowledge they acquire in class. Many of the misconceptions elicited in these references are adhered to by undergraduates both at the start and at the end (!) of traditional lecture-based physics classes, as demonstrated, for example, by the research-based Force Concept Inventory (FCI) and Mechanics Baseline Test (MBT) [15, 16], used for conceptual assessment in introductory undergraduate physics courses. It has been found that students' conceptual (mis)understandings have a tremendous amount of inertia to change, and that traditional problem-solving practice does little to overcome these difficulties [17]. The paper by Van Heuvelen [18] reviews results from studies of student problem-solving and the instructional strategies suggested by that research.

References on Course Content and Problem Solving:

  1. Students' Conceptions and Problem Solving in Mechanics L.C. McDermott, Section C-1, Connecting Research in Physics Education with Teacher Education, An I.C.P.E. Book © International Commission on Physics Education 1997, 1998. Available here. Also Research on conceptual understanding in mechanics, L.C. McDermott, Phys. Today 37 (7), 24-32 (1984), and references therein.
  2. Common sense concepts about motion, I.A. Halloun and D. Hestenes, Am. J. Phys. 53 (11), November 1985. Available here
  3. Surveying students' conceptual knowledge of electricity and magnetism, D.P. Maloney, T.L. O'Kuma, C.J. Hieggelke, A. Van Heuvelen, Phys. Educ. Res., Am. J. Phys. Suppl. 69 (7), July 2001. Available here
  4. An investigation of student understanding of the real image formed by a converging lens or concave mirror (abstract) , F.M. Goldberg and L.C. McDermott, Am. J. Phys. 55 (2), February 1987. Available here
  5. Student understanding of the wave nature of matter: Diffraction and interference of particles, S. Vokos, B.S. Ambrose, P.S. Shaffer, and L.C. McDermott, Phys. Educ. Res., Am. J. Phys., 68 (S1) S42 (2000). Available here
  6. The Challenge of Changing Deeply Held Student Beliefs about the Relativity of Simultaneity, R.E. Scherr, P.S. Shaffer, S. Vokos, Am. J. Phys., 70 (12), December 2002. Available here
  7. Force Concept Inventory, D. Hestenes, M. Wells, G. Swackhammer, The Physics Teacher, Vol. 30, March 1992, 141-158. Available here
  8. Modeling Instruction Program website, Arizona State University. Scroll to the bottom of that page, and click on Research and Evaluation for the FCI, MBT and VASS tests. Available here
  9. Students do not overcome conceptual difficulties after solving 1000 traditional problems, Eunsook Kim and Sung-Jae Pak, Am. J. Phys., 70 (7), July 2002. Available here
  10. Learning to think like a physicist: A review of research-based instructional strategies, A. Van Heuvelen, Am. J. Phys. 59 (10) October 1991.Available here.

Beyond Lectures - Instructional Strategies:

What sorts of techniques are effective for delivery of the class? What is the impact of demonstrations?

Several different alternatives to "just lecturing" in physics classes have been examined in the literature. Research into instructional strategies has shown [19, 20] that the canonical lecture format is not as effective as alternative modes of instruction requiring the active involvement of the students (active learning). Techniques of physics and astronomy instruction that encourage interaction (so that students don't "just sit there") have generally elicited greater gains in conceptual understanding on standardized tests. Alternative methods have taken many different approaches, from minor variations on the straight-lecture format (with mini-lectures separated by conceptual questions, as in Mazur's Peer Instruction [21]), through to small-group collaborative learning, to elimination of lectures altogether (as in Workshop/Studio Physics) [22, 23, 24]. Reformed course models for physics courses have been adopted in various institutions; MIT's Technology-Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) Course, for example [25], mixes lectures, simulations, and hands-on desktop experiments, and is based on the Studio Physics model pioneered at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Traditional in-class demonstrations, performed by the professor and watched passively by the students, have been shown to be of little value in increasing conceptual understanding; active engagement of the students is necessary for increased gains in learning [26]. See also the separate resource for information on Classroom Communication Systems (CCSs).

References on Instructional Strategies:

  1. Interactive Engagement vs. Traditional Methods: A Six-thousand student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses, R.R. Hake, Am. J. Phys., 66 (1) 64-74, 1998. Available here
  2. Peer Instruction: Ten Years of Experience and Results, C.H. Crouch and E. Mazur, Am. J. Phys., 69 (9) 970-7, 2001. Available here
  3. Mazur Group, Physics Education Website , Harvard University. Available here
  4. Studio Physics at MIT , J. Belcher, MIT Physics Newsletter (PDF). Available here
  5. Studio Physics Webpage, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Available here
  6. Workshop Physics at Harvard, available here and Workshop Physics at Dickinson College, available here as well as Millikan Lecture 1996: Promoting Active Learning Based on Physics Education Research in Introductory Physics Courses (abstract), P. Laws, Am. J. Phys. 65 (1) January 1997. Available here
  7. MIT iCampus TEAL webpage. Available here.
  8. Classroom demonstrations: Learning tools or entertainment? , Catherine H. Crouch, Adam P. Fagen, J. Paul Callan, and Eric Mazur, Am. J. Phys. 72, 835 (2004), available here as well as Mazur's webpage on Classroom Demonstrations, Harvard University. Available here

Assessment and Feedback:

What sorts of procedures exist for feedback and assessment? How can assessment be used most effectively?

Given the fact that many students take introductory science courses merely to satisfy a requirement, getting a good grade may be a student's only motivation for studying the material. Thus, an instructor's approach to assessment can be an excellent opportunity to guide students towards deeper learning goals. Continual feedback that closes the instructor-student loop must be integrated into the course, allowing for instructor alterations and improvements. Traditional assessment tools often have the undesired effect of actually reinforcing the superficial student learning that the instructor is striving to avoid. The article by Brissenden et al. [27] is an excellent introduction to assessment for any science discipline; many of the mentioned Classroom Assessment Techniques (CAT's) have been field-tested and are available on-line [28]. Eric Mazur's education website [29] has direct links to Physics ConcepTests for use in-class. These tests give immediate formative feedback to both student and instructor, by testing comprehension of specific concepts on-the-fly. Types and use of assessment tools are not the only issues however; the way in which assignments, quizzes, tests, exams, etc. are graded effectively tells the student what is expected of them. If there is an inconsistency between the stated and actual grading practices (a hidden set of values), then students will disregard what was said in this regard, and focus on what was actually done [30].

References on Assessment and Feedback:

  1. The Role of Assessment in the Development of the College Introductory Astronomy Course: A "How-to" Guide for Instructors by Gina Brissenden, American Astronomical Society, and Timothy Slater, University of Arizona, and Robert Mathieu, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and National Institute for Science Education (NISE) College Level-One Team, University of Wisconsin-Madison, The Astronomy Education Review, Issue 1, Volume 1:1-24, 2002. Available here
  2. National Institute for Science Education (NISE) College Level-One (CL-1) FLAG Website (University of Wisconsin-Madison) From the website: "The Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide (FLAG) web site was constructed by the College Level One Team, as a resource for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) instructors." Available here
  3. ConcepTests, Project Galileo, Harvard University. (Click on Peer Instruction, and then Search for ConcepTests in your discipline.) Available here
  4. Grading student problem solutions: The challenge of sending a consistent message, Charles Henderson, Edit Yerushalmi, Vince H. Kuo, Patricia Heller, and Kenneth Heller, Am. J. Phys. 72, 164 (2004). Available here

General Overviews of PER:

  • Oersted Medal Lecture 2001: Physics education research: The key to student learning, L.C. McDermott, Am. J. Phys. 69 (11), Nov. 2001. Available here
  • Millikan Lecture 1998: Building a Science of Teaching Physics, E.F. Redish, Am. J. Phys. 67 (7), July 1999. Available here.
  • Teaching Physics: Figuring out what works, E.F. Redish and Richard N. Steinberg, Physics Today 52 (January 1999), pp. 24-30. Available here

Resource Guides to Aspects of PER:

  • Resource Letter: PER-1: Physics Education Research, by L.C. McDermott and E.F. Redish, Am. J. Phys. 67 (9) Sept. 1999. Available here
  • Resource Letter RPS-1: Research in problem solving, by Leonardo Hsu, Eric Brewe, Thomas M. Foster, and Kathleen A. Harper, Am. J. Phys. 72 (9) September 2004. Available here.

Commentaries, Perspectives, etc.:

  • How do we know if we are doing a good job in physics teaching? by R. Ehrlich, Am. J. Phys. 70 (1), January 2002. Available here
  • Comment on "How do we know if we are doing a good job in physics teaching?", by Richard Hake, Am. J. Phys. 70 (10) October 2002. Available here.
  • Guest Comment: Should I pay attention to the output from physics education R&D? by Donald Holcomb, Am. J. Phys. 69 (4), April 2001. Available here
  • Millikan Lecture 1997: Is there a text in this class? by David Griffiths, Am. J. Phys. 65 (12), Dec. 1997.
  • Guest Comment: Who needs physics education research? by David Hestenes, Am. J. Phys. 66 (6), June 1998. Available here.
  • Guest Comment: How we teach and how students learn - a mismatch? by Lillian C. McDermott, Am. J. Phys. 61 (4), April 1993. Available here

Other Resources

UBC Department of Physics and Astronomy Physics Education Research Resource Library (PERRL)