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.

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 The material is taught visually using software and supplemented by written text and hands on activities.2 The program is divided into units. The units can be used alongside traditional curriculum.3 The program seems to be more for high school teachers to insert units at appropriate stages thereby showing how quantum mechanics explains certain observations that classical cannot. However, a college course on modern physics or quantum mechanics could make use of the units either in class or as further independent study. More information about Visual Quantum Mechanics and the KSU Physics Education Research Group can be found at

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

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.

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  as cited by many scholar books

Further reading[edit]

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