Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Fall 2005 Newsletter



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Querying other Fields

Andy Elby and Michael Loverude

Our working group was asked to articulate queries that the PER community may wish to direct to other research communities.  In the course of our discussion, we had to make a choice as to the nature of these questions-should they be queries about settled questions in other fields, or questions of active research interest?  The former category would lead to a bibliography of published research, a useful but essentially static result.  We instead focused on actively pursued research questions, in the hopes that our work could lead to partnerships across research communities.  So, although prior research partially addresses many of these queries, new collaborations are needed to answer them more completely.     

Subfields of PER

After compiling an initial list of queries, we reflected about what subfields of PER would benefit from the answers to those queries. During this discussion, little controversy arose as to the boundaries of PER.  However, it became clear that the same query may inform different PER subfields for different reasons.  For instance, in studying students' learning in other fields, some researchers may focus on implications for cognitive models of learning, while others may focus on insights for effective curriculum development. Other questions, such as those dealing with research methods, might cut across subfields.  

We articulated nine subfields of PER.  This is not necessarily a comprehensive list of what PER is; rather, it clarifies for us where the particular queries we generated fit into the field of PER.  To that end, our list is as follows:

  • cognitive mechanism
  • curriculum and instruction
  • epistemology, attitudes, and etcetera
  • institutional change
  • problem solving and reasoning
  • research methods
  • sociocultural mechanisms
  • student conceptions
  • teacher education

Fields Queried

Over four hours of discussion, we considered queries addressed to more than twenty different fields. The queried fields included some that would be expected:  educational psychology, chemistry education, cognitive neuroscience, mathematics education.  Others were more surprising.  For example, group members brought up clearly relevant examples of research on how people learn and solve problems from fields that seem quite different from physics, including art education and economics.  We discussed at length subfields of business including marketing and organizational change. 

Rather than listing all the fields and queries here, we have decided to describe a few examples in detail in order to give readers a sense of the nature of our discussions.  (See for the complete lists, hyperlinked to references and other resources.)  The examples below illustrate how the process went in two directions.  In some cases, we started by considering a field, and came up with queries.  Our examples of this field-based query generation focus on one expected field (math education research) and one unexpected field (business).  In other cases, we began with a specific query and discussed what other fields might be able to help answer it. We discuss two examples of this type of query: one arising from phenomena observed in classroom instruction, the other arising from a desire to optimize our research methods. 

An Example of a Queried Field:  Math Education Research

For many in the PER community, the most natural adjacent fields to query include discipline-based education research (DBER) in other sciences and in mathematics. We generated a number of queries for these fields and could easily have discussed more.  Here, we discuss the queries we posed to math education research, as illustrative of the type of partnerships that this work might promote.  (For those interested in DBER in other disciplines, the Physics Education Research Conference in Syracuse, held immediately after the AAPT national meeting, will examine this topic.)

The first and perhaps most obvious type of query involved the content of mathematics, particularly as it relates to physics.  What pre-instruction ideas do students have about concepts including graphs, slopes, functions, differential equations, and proportional reasoning?  What instructional interventions help students to master these topics?  These queries connect to PER work on student conceptions as well as curriculum and instruction. A related set of questions involves problem solving and reasoning: how do students go about the construction of mathematical proofs, and how do they self-evaluate their work for correctness and completeness?

For physicists involved with teacher preparation, we might collaborate with math education researchers on the nature of pedagogical content knowledge (the knowledge an expert teacher needs about pedagogy in his or her field and about students' conceptions, difficulties, reasoning, and learning in that field).  For example, to what extent is pedagogical content knowledge in math or physics separable from the corresponding content knowledge?  The answer has implications for the standard practice in which future math/science teachers take separate, disconnected courses about math/science and about teaching methods.The mathematics community has long confronted the issue of 'math phobia' or anxiety.  Physics teachers have certainly observed similar affective issues, in which even bright students claim they can't (or don't) 'do physics.'  Do these phenomena share sociological or cultural roots?  What do they reflect about students' beliefs about the nature of math/science knowledge and learning?

Math education research and other DBER face many similar concerns.  These include methodological issues:  what methods have other disciplines developed to study these questions that may be of interest to PER?  These fields also share deeper sociological and political issues: the growing fields of DBER face a difficult funding climate, uneven levels of acceptance among traditionally-oriented departments, and the need for means of scholarly communication and criticism. 

Another Example of a Queried Field:  Business

While mathematics education is a field that we expect to inform PER, business is perhaps not.  However, some of the questions that PER is beginning to address closely resemble issues studied in schools of business.  In particular, the adoption of PER-based curricula in traditional departments is a process similar to those studied in fields described as decision theory or organizational studies.  What can these fields tell us about how institutions decide to change and about the trade-offs between large dramatic changes versus incremental improvements? 

The fields of physics in general and PER in particular are confronted with challenges that are, in part, marketing issues.  How does a physics department sell itself to potential students?  How does a department contemplating curricular reform justify the expense to its own faculty and to higher administrators? 

Finally, the group discussed focus group techniques as used by market researchers.  PER typically gathers data from whole classes or individual students.  Could we also use established techniques to elicit information on student understanding from a small focus group?

Example of Research Questions Arising from Our Own Work:  Cognitive Conflict 

Many PER curricula use cognitive conflict, in which students make predictions and then are confronted with evidence that their predictions are incorrect.  One of the working group members observed that, in some cases, her students seem to 'shut down' when presented with the conflict. This process appeared to be related to a cognitive mechanism of suppression and/or a related emotional response.  Another member of the group referred to current research in cognitive neuroscience using brain scans.  When students made observations of a particular counter-intuitive phenomenon, scans indicated the activation of a portion of the brain associated with suppression. 

These results lead to a number of intriguing questions.  During cognitive conflict in instruction, what cognitive suppression mechanisms are activated?  Do these results suggest that incorrect intuitions do not go away, but are merely suppressed?  What affective or emotional responses are associated with these processes?  Do men and women experience different responses?  Although the initial query was posed to the field of neuroscience, the questions we just listed also touch upon cognitive and social psychology, sociology, and perhaps even identity theory.  The answers to these questions might influence curriculum developers as well as researchers interested in a more fundamental understanding of cognitive mechanisms in physics learning.

Another Example of Research Questions Arising from Our Own Work: Non-verbal Communication

Another member of the group brought up a series of questions that have arisen in her ongoing examination of research methods and their underlying assumptions.  Many PER studies rely upon the analysis of video data from clinical interviews or classroom interactions.  Typically a researcher transcribes utterances, what students and interviewers say.  However, emerging evidence suggests that something can be learned from events that aren't typically recorded in a transcript.  When students pause mid-statement or between statements, or make non-verbal utterances and false starts, what can we learn about student thinking?  Can a researcher gain meaningful information from the tone or rapidity of student statements?   These non-linguistic elements of speech, called 'paralinguistic' elements, are studied in many fields including linguistics, psychology and sociology.


Our group's consensus was that PER could benefit greatly from interacting more with other fields -- not only from reading their papers, but also from collaborating on specific research projects.  We acknowledge that there are significant barriers to such collaborations, including lack of knowledge about other fields, lack of contacts in other fields, and institutional pressures to collaborate and publish within one's discipline.  We nevertheless hope that researchers will take advantage of appropriate opportunities to expand and deepen physics education research with interdisciplinary collaborations.


The working group co-chairs would like to thank the other members of our group for their input: Leslie Atkins, Tom Bing, David Brookes, Eugenia Etkina, Gary Gladding, David Hammer, Andrew Heckler, Beth Lindsey, Ellie Sayre, Rachel Scherr, and Laura Walsh.

Andy Elby  is Assistant Research Scientist in Physics at the University of Maryland.  He is currently co-authoring an introductory calculus- based physics textbook for John Wiley and Sons.  Michael Loverude is Associate Professor of Physics at California State University at Fullerton.  His research primarily focuses on student understanding of fundamental concepts.



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