Physics education

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Not to be confused with Physical education.
This article is about methods used to teach physics, and research on their improvement. For the journal, see Physics Education.

Physics education or physics education research (PER) refers both to the methods currently used to teach physics and to an area of pedagogical research that seeks to improve those methods. Historically, physics has been taught at the high school and college level primarily by the lecture method together with laboratory exercises aimed at verifying concepts taught in the lectures. These concepts are better understood when lectures are accompanied with demonstration, hand-on experiments, and questions that require students to ponder what will happen in an experiment and why. Students who participate in active learning for example with hands-on experiments learn through self-discovery. By trial and error they learn to change their preconceptions about phenomena in physics and discover the underlying concepts.

Physics education in ancient Greece[edit]

Aristotle wrote what is considered now as the first textbook of physics.[1] Aristotle's ideas were taught unchanged until the Late Middle Ages, when scientists started making discoveries that didn't fit them. For example, Copernicus' discovery contradicted Aristotle's idea of an Earth-centric universe. Aristotle's ideas about motion weren't displaced until the end of the 17th century, when Newton published his ideas.

Today's physics students keep thinking of physics concepts in Aristotelian terms, despite being taught only Newtonian concepts.[2]

Physics education in American high schools[edit]

Physics is taught in high schools, college and graduate schools. In the US, it has traditionally not been introduced until junior or senior year (i.e. 12th grade), and then only as an elective or optional science course, which the majority of American high school students have not taken. Recently in the past years, many students have been taking it their sophomore year.

Physics First is a popular and relatively new movement in American high schools. In schools with this curriculum 9th grade students take a course with introductory physics education. This is meant to enrich students understanding of physics, and allow for more detail to be taught in subsequent high school biology, and chemistry classes; it also aims to increase the number of students who go on to take 12th grade physics or AP Physics (both of which are generally electives in American high schools.) But many scientists and educators argue that freshmen do not have an adequate background in mathematics to be able to fully comprehend a complete physics curriculum, and that therefore quality of a physics education is lost. While physics requires knowledge of vectors and some basic trigonometry, many students in the Physics First program take the course in conjunction with Geometry. They suggest that instead students first take biology and chemistry which are less mathematics-intensive so that by the time they are in their junior year, students will be advanced enough in mathematics with either an Algebra 2 or pre-calculus education to be able to fully grasp the concepts presented in physics. Some argue this even further, saying that at least calculus should be a prerequisite for physics.

Physics education in American universities[edit]

Undergraduate physics curricula in American universities includes courses for students choosing an academic major in physics, as well as for students majoring in other disciplines for whom physics courses provide essential prerequisite skills and knowledge. The term physics major can refer to the academic major in physics or to a student or graduate who has chosen to major in physics.

Physics education research [edit]

Number of Publications on Students' Ideas on the Bibliography by Duit (2005)
Fragment Publication

Mechanics (force)* 792
Electricity (electrical circuit) 444
Optics 234
Particle model 226
Thermal physics (heat/temp.) 192
Energy 176
Astronomy (Earth in space) 121
Quantum physics 77
Nonlinear systems (chaos) 35
Sound 28
Magnetism 25
Relativity 8

* Predominant concept in brackets.
Adapted from Duit, R., H. Niedderer and H. Schecker (see ref.).

Approximately eighty-five institutions in the United States conduct research in science and physics education. One primary goal of physics education research is to develop pedagogical techniques and strategies that will help students learn physics more effectively and help instructors to implement these techniques. Owing to the abstract and counter-intuitive nature of many of the elementary concepts in physics, together with the fact that teaching through analogies can lead to didaskalogenic confusions, the lecture method often fails to help students overcome the many misconceptions about the physical world that they have developed before undertaking formal instruction in the subject. Research often focuses on learning more about the common misconceptions (see Scientific misconceptions) that students bring to the physics classroom, so that techniques can be devised to help students overcome these misconceptions.

In most introductory physics courses mechanics usually is the first area of physics that is discussed, and Newton's laws of motion, which describe how massive objects respond to forces, are central to the study of mechanics. As an example, many students hold the aristotelian misconception that a net force is required to keep a body moving; instead, motion is modelled in modern physics with the Newton's First Law of inertia, stating that a body will keep its state of rest or movement unless a net force acts on the body. Newton arrived at his three laws of motion from an extensive study of empirical data including many astronomical observations. In an active learning environment students might experiment with objects in an environment that has almost no friction, for example a block moving on an almost frictionless air table. There they would find that if they start the block moving at constant speed, it continues to move at constant speed without the need for a constant "push". It is hoped that exercises of this nature will help students to overcome their preconceived ideas about motion.

A variety of interactive learning methods (sometimes also called active learning methods) and laboratory experiences have been developed with this aim. The recognition of the value of interactive engagement over more passive lecturing strategies has been promoted in large measure through studies initially using the Force Concept Inventory.

Dahncke et al. (2001) argued that there is a split in the science education community. On the one hand the major focus in on science whereby the group is usually organized close to the domain discipline, like physical societies. On the other hand, there are science educators whose aims are to balance the domain and educational issues.

  • Themes drawn adapted from Duit, Niedder and Schecker (2007)
Philosophy of physics ---------Physics---------History of physics
                       \          |            /
                        \         |           /
Pedagogy-----------------Physics education-------------Psychology
                                  |
                                  |
Further reference disciplines: sociology, anthropology, linguistics, ethics

Major areas of research[edit]

The broad goal of the physics education research (PER) community is to understand the processes involved in the teaching and learning of physics through rigorous scientific investigation.

According to the University of Washington PER group (one of the pioneers in the field),[3] work within PER tends to fall within one or more of several broad descriptions, including:

  • identifying student difficulties
  • developing methods to address these difficulties and measure learning gains
  • developing surveys to measure student performance and other characteristics
  • investigating student attitudes and beliefs as relating to physics
  • studying small and large group dynamics analyzing student patterns using framing and other new and existing epistemological methods

“An Introduction to Physics Education Research”, by Robert Beichner,[4] identified 8 trends in PER as follows

  1. Conceptual understanding: Investigation of what students know and how they learn it. Early research involved identifying and treating “misconceptions” about physics principles (e.g. “A heavier object will fall faster than a lighter object” or “acceleration is always zero when velocity is zero”). The term has since evolved to “student difficulties” based on consideration of alternative theoretical frameworks for student learning on a cognitive level such as resource theory which would refine the idea of what was meant by “conceptual change”. (That is, a difficulty with a concept can be built into a correct concept; in contrast, a misconception needs to be rooted out and replaced by a correct conception.) The PER group at the University of Washington specializes in research about conceptual understanding and student difficulty.
  2. Epistemology: Physics Education Research began as a trial-and-error approach to improve learning (something most teachers are familiar with). Because of the downsides of such an approach, theoretical bases for research were developed early on, most notable through the University of Maryland. The theoretical underpinnings of PER are mostly built around a Piagettean constructivism. Theories on cognition in physics learning were put forward by Redish, Hammer, Elby and Scherr,[5] who built off of diSessa's “Knowledge in Pieces”. The Resources Framework,[6] developed from this work, is notable, which builds off of research in neuroscience, sociology, linguistics, education and psychology. Additional frameworks are forthcoming, most recently the “Possibilities Framework” [7] which builds off of deductive reasoning research started by Wason and Johnson-Laird.
  3. Problem Solving: Everyone who has taken a physics course understands the emphasis on problem solving via the hoardes of “end-of-chapter” exercises in a given textbook. This is for good reason, as problem solving plays an important role in the processes by which the fields of physics research are advanced. Most research in this area rests on examining the difference between novice and expert problem solvers (freshman/sophomores and graduate level/postdoctorate students, respectively). Approaches in researching problem solving have been a focus for the University of Minnesota's PER group. Recently, a paper was published in PRL Special Section: PER which identified over 30 behaviors, attitudes and skills that are utilized in the solving of a typical physics problem. The implication of this is that greater resolution and specific attention to the details is needed in the field of problem solving: its too general to study on its own, without consideration to the components.
  4. Attitudes: The University of Colorado developed an instrument which reveals student attitudes and expectations about physics as a subject and as a class. Student attitudes seem to decline after traditional instruction, but recent work by Redish and Hammer indicate that things are looking up.
  5. Social Aspects: Significant research has been conducted into gender, race, and other socioeconomic issues that can influence learning, not just in physics, but in any field. Additionally, research into the social aspects of learning such as body language, group dynamics (versus solitary learning) and even classroom set up (lecture hall, lab setting, or round tables?) and how these factors affect the learning of physics.
  6. Technology: Student response systems (“Clickers”) are based on Eric Mazur's work in Peer Instruction. Some research in PER examines the influence, applications of, and possibilities for technology in the classroom.
  7. Instructional Interventions, Materials, and their evaluation: Perhaps the most productive outcropping of the PER community is the development of curricula design based on more than two decades of research in physics education. The Tutorials in Physics, Physics by Inquiry, Investigative Science Learning Environment, and Paradigms in Physics are notable, as well as the multitude of new textbooks in introductory and junior level coursework. (For example, for intro classes, Etkina and Van Heuvelen, Knight, Mazur, and for junior level quantum mechanics, McIntyre.) The Kansas State University Physics Education Research Group has developed a program, Visual Quantum Mechanics (VQM), to teach quantum mechanics to high school and college students who do not have advanced backgrounds in physics or math.1.

Journal association[edit]

Physics education research papers in the United States are primarily issued among four publishing venues (Hsu et al. 2007). Papers submitted to the American Journal of Physics: Physics Education Research Section (PERS) are mostly to consumers of physics education research (e.g., those for whom interest is in reading about and using it rather than those whose interest is in conducting the research; to the Journal of the Learning Sciences (JLS) for whom attention is addressed in real-life or non-laboratory environments often in the context of today's technological society, and about learning, not teaching. Manuscripts sent to Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research (PRST:PER) are aimed at those for whom research is conducted on PER rather than to consumers. The audience for Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings (PERC) is designed for a mix of consumers and researchers. The latter provides a snapshot of the field and as such is open to preliminary results and research in progress, as well as papers that would simply be thought-provoking to the PER community. Other journals include but are not limited to Physics Education (UK), the European Journal of Physics (UK) and the Physics Teacher. Leon Hsu et al. published an article about publishing and refereeing papers in physics education research in 2007.[8]

See also[edit]

Portal icon Physics portal

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

PER Reviews:

Miscellaneous:

  • H. Dahncke et al. (2001). "Science education versus science in the academy: Questions---discussions---perspectives (in Research in Science Education -- Past, Present and Future)". pp. 43–48.