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The Role and Promise of Physics Education Research

By Noah Finkelstein

Noah Finkelstein
Noah Finkelstein

An October 2005 report from the National Academies–entitled Rising Above the Gathering Storm–details the need for our society’s investment in education, particularly in the sciences. Among other recommendations, the authors call for 10,000 new science and math teachers each year to educate ten million minds. In short, education is a fundamental form of society’s investment in its future.

In many respects, however, we appear to be failing. The report from the National Academies documents the poor performance of our K12 students as well as significant challenges facing our college and even graduate students. The situation is yet worse for the poor and students of color. Furthermore, we have found that not only are our students not learning what we intend to teach them (both in K12 and college), but students are actually learning things we don’t intend. For instance, in introductory physics, students tend to exit their courses with more novice-like beliefs about science and the nature of learning science than when they enter. We must address these vast challenges in a variety of ways–politically, economically, and through academic work.

Just as education is a fundamental form of investment in a society’s future, research in education is a fundamental form of investment in the future of education. How we educate should be determined by thorough research in and understanding of our goals in education. To that end, over the past several decades physicists have built a community of researchers, a scholarship, and canon of work that focuses on education, learning, and teaching in physics. This field is known broadly as physics education research (PER). PER challenges how, when, why, and whom we educate.

Physicists have moved beyond the wishful thinking of common educational practice to a more studied and scientific approach to teaching. For example, perhaps our commitment to laboratory experiences for all students is borne out by the research, or perhaps not. Could it be possible that students who work with virtual equipment develop the same mechanical facility in the laboratory as students who work with real equipment? To address such questions, the PER community has conducted research that varies from challenging specific beliefs about student understanding to global structures of institutional change and what has and should be included in the education of our students. We have done so through a scholarship of research, debate, community consensus, verification and validation– just as any other sub-discipline of physics. It is the growth and success of PER that led to the significant APS Statement (99:2), endorsing research in PER as a staple and appropriate activity for the physics community.

At the same time, we might ask, why physicists? I do not suggest that it will be physicists alone who address the grave challenges of science education outlined above. However, physicists will be fundamental contributors to address these issues. The challenges of science education require the participation of physicists. It is we who have the content knowledge. For example, a thriving subgroup in the PER community studies how students learn and how to teach quantum mechanics effectively. It is a rare member of any other discipline–education, psychology or elsewhere–who has the necessary understanding of physics to deeply engage in many such questions.

Another clear reason to house PER within the physics community is that we are the practitioners who make use of the results of PER. Our charge as a community includes educating both current students and future teachers (as well as defining what it means to know physics). Meanwhile the complement is true. PER has benefited and grown enormously because it applies the tools of science to educational problems. We hypothesize, experiment, analyze, theorize, debate and reconcile our findings. Physicists’ attention to education is not simply a matter of convenience and success, however. Focusing on social practices, and education in particular, is the morally conscionable act of physicists. Whether we like it or not, we are engaged in political acts, supporting or challenging existing paradigms and power structures. Finally, it is worth noting that physicists are very successfully conducting such research within physics departments. Currently there are over 100 PER faculty, in more than 80 physics departments, roughly 20 of which offer PhD programs with PER tracks. There is significant funding from NSF, a conference series published by AIP, and several publication venues, including a new Physical Review journal dedicated to PER.

Most broadly, PER has helped physics education move from an ad hoc, individualized and disconnected practice to a more scientific, collective, archived and incrementally developed practice. For instance, one of the frequent calls in education is to develop and promote on-line instruction. Huge investments have already been made and even greater investments are projected for the future. But how best might we leverage technology in our educational system? All too often we employ technology for its own ends. Careful research in PER can help guide the development and application of new technological tools for teaching and learning of physics. If we could have online laboratories for students, should we? In what manner? Current research addressing these questions is discussed below. For the moment, I briefly highlight a few of the achievements of the PER community. Many more thorough reviews exist and I recommend Redish’s book Teaching Physics and recent articles in the American Journal of Physics or Physics Today.

Much of the early success of the field came from the study of student understanding and carefully engineered curricula designed to improve that understanding. Some seminal work in the field was the development and broad application of assessment tools to more reliably answer the questions of if and what our students learn. The Force Concept Inventory and other similar measurement tools (such as the FMCE, CSEM, BEMA and now tools in just about every field of physics) have been instrumental in persuading faculty that students are not learning what they believed (perhaps because of wishful thinking). Meanwhile, research-based curricula, such as the University of Washington Tutorials in Introductory Physics or Physics by Inquiry, which are designed with specific learning goals and are studied, refined and tested, have been shown to improve students’ understanding of foundational concepts in physics, and even been shown to enhance students’ traditional problem solving skills.

New approaches to classroom interaction have borne out theories of student learning that suggest that learning is an active process and particularly facilitated by encouraging students to be engaged in our educational environments. Mazur’s Peer Instruction leverages technology to change the large-scale passive lecture environment into one where students are the ones “teaching themselves.” (Of course the logical extension is that students don’t need us–perhaps our ultimate goal.) Other educational practices, such as studio or workshop physics (variously developed and studied by Laws, Beichner, Belcher, Cummings and many other scholars) stem from the work of John Dewey who argued for such practices in the early 1900’s. However, our approach to studying these scientifically, and iterating on what works based on data, is new.

More recently, researchers have been expanding the canon of questions, examining what and how we teach more broadly. In newly structured courses that promote students’ understanding of content, researchers have documented that students do not necessarily develop scientific beliefs about the discipline. Researchers at Maryland (including Redish, Saul, Elby and Hammer) and more recently at Colorado (Adams, Perkins and Wieman) have documented that as a result of instruction in typical courses, students tend to believe that physics is more a matter of memorizing disconnected formulae that have little to do with the real world and less a coherent study of the world in a rational manner. These researchers have started to identify curricula and practices that effectively reverse these trends, and may well change students’ interest and inclusion in the discipline.

In coupled work, researchers in the PER group at Colorado have started examining when and why technology may be helpful to address many of our educational challenges. In a study of learning by using computer simulations, students in a large-scale, introductory physics course were assigned to one of two educational conditions, one using real equipment and one using a computer simulation entitled the Circuit Construction Kit (CCK) available at phet.colorado.edu. Students completed identical labs using these different tools. As assessed by common, validated questions about electric circuits placed on the final exam, the CCK students demonstrated greater mastery of DC circuits, and performed indistinguishably on concepts not related to circuits. Somewhat surprisingly, on a coupled challenge to assemble a real circuit, the students who had worked only with virtual equipment demonstrated greater capabilities in manipulating the real equipment than their counterparts who had only worked with real equipment. This is not to say it is always preferable to work virtually. The most careful consideration ought be given to how and when we apply technological solutions to social problems.

PER also extends beyond classroom studies and studies of student thinking. A variety of lines of research seek to change the broader structure of education in physics and the sciences. One example, a joint effort of the APS, AAPT, AIP, the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, seeks to increase the number, preparation, and retention of the highest caliber physics teachers. Given that approximately two out of every three US high school physics teachers do not hold any physics degree, can we be surprised by our pre-college students’ poor performance?

Other nascent research efforts in the community explore the continued low representation of women and people of color in physics and the physics classroom. Such efforts are designed not simply to figure out how to teach, but to examine how we might teach in a socially just and equitable manner. Other critical research examines institutional structures that support (or inhibit) the sustained and scaled implementation of reforms that have proven productive. These studies of disseminating and sustaining model programs occur because physicists seek to ensure that their efforts do not fall prey to the same fates as prior educational initiatives. For more, I encourage the reader to consult the rich and growing literature in the field in the American Journal of Physics, Proceedings of the Physics Education Research Conference, and the newly formed Physical Review online journal in Physics Education Research.

What challenges does physics education face? What distinguishes the hollow calls for education from more authentic calls? Action. Physicists, by building and supporting the field of PER, are acting–other disciplines are following suit. As with the growth of any new field, though, PER faces a variety of pressures and opportunities. Its dramatic growth and acceptance has proven productive; however, if we are to continue to see such dramatic success, we must actively support and choose to develop the field. Let us encourage others to act on the calls of the APS to support PER and its continued growth within physics departments.

At the same time we might act more broadly. Funding, as with all areas of physics and science research, is politically bound. We ought to follow former APS President Helen Quinn’s call for our community to lobby and act collectively, and seek the support of education research within the sciences. I’m pleased to have worked with many members of the PER community, and with U.S. Senator Ken Salazar and his staff, to argue for eliminating the devastating cuts to NSF funding devoted to education research. (Recently these cuts were reported to be one third their initially proposal levels of roughly 50%.)

Finally, both practitioners and researchers of physics education will do well to be explicit about their goals as to why and how we teach physics. A broad span of motives fit within the umbrella of investing in our society and world’s future. By being explicit about our goals and identifying how our actions are aligned with these goals (in the classroom, the boardroom, and faculty meetings), we may make great strides to an equitable, prospering and humane society.

Noah Finkelstein is an assistant professor of physics specializing in physics education research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he also is the leader of their PhysTEC project. While the views expressed herein are his own, he suspects others may agree with him.


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