The PER User's Guide: A Web Resource for Physics Educators

Sam McKagan, Editor, PER User's Guide - American Association of Physics Teachers

Physics education research (PER) is widely recognized as a leader in discipline-based science education research. Researchers in the field of PER have made enormous advances in understanding how students learn physics most effectively and in developing teaching methods that dramatically improve student learning.1 However, research on faculty change has found that even educators who know about PER and are highly motivated to improve their teaching have trouble finding the information they need to implement PER-based teaching methods effectively.2 The PER User's Guide is a growing web resource designed to address this problem by translating, summarizing, and organizing the results of PER in an accessible and useful way for busy educators. The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) has developed a pilot site with NSF funding in conjunction with the ComPADRE digital library, with the PER Leadership and Organizing Council (PERLOC) serving as the advisory board.

The content of the PER User's Guide has been developed by the editor based on classroom observations, interviews with developers and adopters of PER-based teaching methods, surveys, and literature reviews. One important result that has come out of this work is that curriculum developers have many hidden assumptions based on their own environments and goals, and thus are not always able to effectively communicate the essential features of their curricula to adopters. Successful adopters, on the other hand, because they have had to struggle with enacting someone else's vision in a new environment, are often able to articulate these hidden assumptions and to offer much more detailed and clear advice for other adopters. This result suggests that the current practice of leaving dissemination to curriculum developers is not the best way to increase effective implementation. The PER User's Guide is playing an important role in dissemination by collecting the wisdom of successful adopters that has traditionally been left untapped.

Some of the features available on the PER User's Guide include:
  • A guide to PER-based teaching methods which includes brief overviews to more than 50 PER-based teaching methods and a wizard for filtering teaching methods based on criteria such as the instructional environment, the instructor's goals, and various types of research validation
  • General information about PER, including links to PER resources, podcasts, blogs, and videos of presentations by experts in PER
  • Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about PER
  • A guide to what makes PER-based teaching methods work
  • An article on the "top 10" results of PER that every physics instructor should know

User testing with physics faculty has shown that the site is easy to navigate and provides many resources that faculty need, and has highlighted many areas for further development and expansion. In addition to providing basic overviews of PER-based teaching methods for instructors who are still trying to decide which method to use, we are developing detailed implementation guides to provide comprehensive guidance for instructors who are already working on implementing a particular method. Each detailed implementation guide will contain approximately 20 pages of text, graphics, and multimedia, demonstrating the method through detailed suggestions for implementation, ways to address common challenges and questions, a summary of the research base behind the method, classroom videos, reviews by other adopters, case studies of successful adopters, and ways to connect with other adopters.

The next step in the development of the PER User's Guide, funded by a new NSF grant, will be the development of assessment resources. The PER community has produced dozens of researchvalidated assessment tools to evaluate the effectiveness of different teaching methods for many different physics topics. These assessment tools have had a major impact on physics education reform: The Force Concept Inventory (FCI)3 a test of basic concepts of forces and acceleration, has been given to thousands of students throughout the country and the results show that PERbased teaching methods lead to dramatic improvements in students' conceptual understanding of mechanics. These results have inspired many physics instructors to try the FCI with their own students and to radically change their teaching methods based on the results. Similar assessments exist in nearly every topic in physics, but it is often difficult for instructors to access these assessments or to interpret the results. We will address this problem by creating a database of assessment tools and results where instructors can access assessment tools, find descriptions of how to use them and the research behind them, and submit student scores to a national database so that other instructors can see typical scores that they can use to evaluate and interpret results from their own classes. This will provide a basis for comparison between instructors and pedagogies that will enable instructors to assess the effectiveness of their instruction on a variety of topics, promoting the adoption of more effective teaching methods. In addition, we will provide overviews for faculty on a variety of research-based assessments in their classrooms. These overviews will cover a range of types of assessment, including summative, formative, and programmatic. Future goals for the PER User's Guide include:
  • Editorial Board review of all content and ensure that the site contains high quality material that accurately reflects the views of the PER community
  • Development of detailed implementation guides to more of the 50+ PER-based teaching methods on the site
  • Development of comprehensive guides to the research behind all teaching methods on the site including summaries of the most important research results and a searchable database of references for each method, with tags indicating what type of research has been done, what student skills has this method been demonstrated to improve, at what levels, and in what settings
  • Redesign of the site based on the results of user testing
  • Video demonstrations of popular teaching methods, a Virtual New Faculty Workshop library containing videos of all the presentations at the Workshop for New Faculty in Physics and Astronomy
  • Guides to research by physics topic
  • An online curriculum database
  • Online faculty learning communities
  • Expanding the site to include content targeting K-12 teachers
  • Expanding the site to include content for educators in developing countries
  • Research on the impact of the PER User's Guide on faculty practice
  • Consulting services for physics departments that are interested in implementing PER-based teaching methods and need help determining which methods are most appropriate to their environment and how to implement them effectively.


1. R.R. Hake, "Interactive-engagement v.s traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses," Am. J. Phys. 66, 64-74 (1998); L.C. McDermott and E.F. Redish, "Resource Letter: PER-1: Physics Education Research," Am. J. Phys. 67, 755 (1999) and refs therein; E.F. Redish, Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite (Wiley, New York, 2003) and refs therein.
2. C. Henderson and M. Dancy, "Barriers to the Use of Research- Based Instructional Strategies: The Influence of Both Individual and Situational Characteristics," Phys. Rev. ST: PER 3 (2), 020102 (2007).
3. D. Hestenes, M. Wells, and G. Swackhamer, "Force Concept Inventory," Phys. Teach., 30, 141 (1992).

Sarah "Sam" McKagan is the Editor of the PER User's Guide for the American Association of Physics Teachers. She is also a PER consultant for several projects, including the Energy Project at Seattle Pacific University, PhET Interactive Science Simulations at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a modern physics lab development project at Augsburg College

Disclaimer–The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.