Physics education

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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. 11th/12th), 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 courses for non-science majors in the university are usually survey-type courses. The topics covered in courses varies widely, but they are covered shallowly in comparison to more specialized classes for physics majors. Lectures in this area often involve physical demonstrations that aid in the understanding of course material that may be difficult to understand. Students do not need to know how to use formulas requiring advanced mathematics. The content of the course typically requires the use of basic algebra. Tangible applications of course material is typically emphasized. Some courses involve a laboratory component in addition to a lecture portion. The content of the laboratory is usually related to the content of the lecture. Laboratory study gives students experience in doing hands on work with topics covered in lecture. Often labs are administered in a proctored environment, with instructors or assistants providing support and direction to students.

Physics courses for science or engineering majors usually explore deeper than the survey courses. The content of each individual course might not have as great of scope as survey-type courses, but the greater depth in each topic provides added instruction in areas specific to the students' curriculum. Physics courses for science majors typically have more advanced prerequisite mathematics courses that allows topics within physics to be explored on a more mathematical level. Common prerequisite courses include calculus and differential equations. Teaching in these courses often involves utilizing mathematics to derive formulas, leading to a more mathematical understanding of the physics being taught.

The courses for physics majors are typically even more advanced. At the beginning of the college, their courses have few differences with the physics courses for the general education of science major. After the first year, the physics majors need to go up and study many deeper knowledge. The first change of the course is that the scale of the courses is much more smaller than before due to the different major of students in high grade. And for the content of the course, the quantitative analysis is really important. Meanwhile, there is usually a solid of homework. The grades of the students are largely decided by the homework and exams. The non-academic part, such as particitation, discussion, would have little weight. Each year, there are some specific required courses. But students usually can make some change due to their own ability. Students who are enthusiastic can take the graduate level course in senior year.  There are also some purely lab courses, which teach students how to do the advanced experiment and write the lab report.

Teaching strategies[edit]

Teaching strategies are the various techniques used by the teachers to facilitate the students with different learning styles. The different teaching strategies help teachers to develop critical thinking among students and effectively engaging them in the classroom. The selection of teaching strategies depends on the concept to be taught and also on the interest of the students.

Methods/Approaches for teaching physics

  • Lecture Method: Lecturing is the one of the traditional way of teaching science. Since most teachers are taught by this method they continue to use the method in spite of many limitations as it is very much convenient. This method is teacher centric and the role of the lecturer is supreme. Lecture method is ineffective in developing critical thinking and scientific attitude among children.
  • Recitation Method: In this method the role of student is more compared to the lecture method. This method is also known as Socratic Method where the teacher will ask questions and trigger the thoughts of the students. This method is very effective in developing higher order thinking in pupils. To apply this strategy the children should be partially informed about the content. Recitation method will be ineffective if the questions are not well prepared. This method is student centric.
  • Demonstration Method: In this method the teacher perform certain experiments which students observe and put questions related to the experiment. After completion the teacher can ask questions to explain each and every step that is performed. This method is effective as science is not completely a theoretical subject.
  • Lecture-cum-Demonstration method: As the title suggest it is the combination of two methods lecture method and demonstration method. It is a simple method where the teacher perform the experiment and explain simultaneously. By this method the teacher can provide more information in less time. But the learners only observe, they don't get hands on experience. And it is not possible to teach all topics by this method.[3]

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),[4] 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,[5] 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.[6]
  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,[7] who built off of diSessa's “Knowledge in Pieces”. The Resources Framework,[8] 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”[9] 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 hoards 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 are often found to decline after traditional instruction, but recent work by Redish and Hammer show that this can be reversed and positive attitudinal gains seen if attention is paid to "explicate the epistemological elements of the implicit curriculum"[10]
  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: 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.
  8. Instructional Materials: For undergraduates, publishers now emphasize a PER basis for their physics textbooks as a major selling point. One of the earliest comprehensive physics textbooks to incorporate PER findings was written by Serway and Beichner. Knight's text is probably the most widely-adopted PER-based textbook to date. Apart from textbooks, instructional material for pre-college physics students now include PhET (Physics Education Technology) simulations. This is made possible through advances in personal computer hardware, platform-independent software such as Flash and Java, and more recently HTML5. According to Wieman,[11] PhET simulations offer a direct and powerful tool for probing student thinking and learning.

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.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Angelo Armenti (1992), The Physics of Sports, 1 (2, illustrated ed.), Springer, ISBN 978-0-88318-946-7 citing R.B Lindsay, Basic concepts of Physics (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1971), Appendix 1
  2. ^ Ibrahim Abou Halloun; David Hestenes (1985), "Common sense concepts about motion" (PDF), American Journal of Physics, 53 (11): 1056–1065, Bibcode:1985AmJPh..53.1056H, doi:10.1119/1.14031, archived from the original (PDF) on September 11, 2006 as cited by many scholar books
  3. ^ vaidya (1999). Science teaching for the 21st century. Deep & Deep publications. pp. 181–201. ISBN 978-8171008117.
  4. ^ Physics Education Research | Physics Education Group
  5. ^ Robert J. Beichner (2009). "An Introduction to Physics Education Research". In Charles R. Henderson and Kathleen A. Harper. Getting Started in PER. Reviews in PER 2.
  6. ^ McDermott (2010). A Personal History of Physics Education Research and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington. unpublished. pp. 1–81.
  7. ^ "Resources, Framing, and Transfer"
  8. ^ Redish Edward F (2014). "Oersted Lecture 2013: How should we think about how our students think?". American Journal of Physics. 82 (6): 537–551. arXiv:1308.3911. Bibcode:2014AmJPh..82..537R. doi:10.1119/1.4874260.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Redish, Edward F.; Hammer, David (2009-07-01). "Reinventing college physics for biologists: Explicating an epistemological curriculum". American Journal of Physics. 77 (7): 629–642. arXiv:0807.4436. Bibcode:2009AmJPh..77..629R. doi:10.1119/1.3119150. ISSN 0002-9505.
  11. ^ Wieman, Carl; Perkins, Katherine; Adams, Wendy (2007-10-28). "Oersted Medal Lecture 2007: Interactive simulations for teaching physics: What works, what doesn't, and why". American Journal of Physics. 76 (4 & 5): 393–399. doi:10.1119/1.2815365.
  12. ^ Leon Hsu et al. (2007). "Publishing and refereeing papers in physics education research". Physics Education Research Conference 951: 3–6.

Further reading[edit]

PER Reviews: