Purpose and Utility of Learning Theory in PER: Report of the FFPER Theory Session

Lauren Barth-Cohen, University of Miami, and David Brookes, California State University, Chico

“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.” “The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci”
Translated by Jean Paul Richter — 1888

At the Foundations and Frontiers of Physics Education Research (FFPER) conference held in Bar Harbor, Maine, June 15 – 19, 2015, a working group on theory was formed consisting of roughly 12 members. The group met several times over the course of the conference and discussed concerns and next steps around the role, use, and importance of theories in PER. Although there are many types of theories, including organizational theories and teaching theories, there is often a focus on learning theories. We considered a learning theory to be loosely defined as an explanatory model for how and why change takes place at the level of an individual, collection of individuals or organization.

  The working group agreed that the role of learning theory and its development in PER has undergone a change in status over the last 10 years. Learning theory has progressed from a being from being, at best, a tacit part of our work, to playing a much more explicit and central role in the field. At the conference, vigorous discussions centered around whether research in physics education could be conducted free of a theoretical viewpoint. Members of our working group were motivated to challenge the “theory agnostic” paradigm, taking seriously the idea that researchers do approach their work from a theoretical viewpoint, even if it is implicit. We felt that we could be more explicit about our theoretical approaches in our research and writing, and that theory is a fundamental part of our research paradigm. Learning theories influence all stages of the research process from design, data collection, and analysis, to presentation of findings. They can be complex and it is not always well understood how we build, modify, and integrate theory. Therefore it is not surprising that questions about the practically of developing and using learning theories along with questions about their utility are common in PER. Many physics education researchers enter the PER field trained in the theories and methods of physics, but less well-versed in learning theories. For those who are new to using learning theory, there is a dearth of available tools and resources, which in turn limits our access to learning theory. Many of our group felt intimidated by the variety and complexity of the learning theories that are currently in existence. Discussions centered around finding entry points into a particular theory. Given these motivations the group broke into three subgroups to address the following questions:
  1. Why do we use theories? Why are they necessary or useful?
  2. What are the ways in which we build, modify and integrate and use theories?
  3. What are the tools or resources we could create to help interested researchers use theories, particularly those who are new to learning theory?

While these questions are not all-encompassing or the only interesting questions we considered, the purpose of this group was not to evaluate or discuss specific learning theories, instead our goals were to think about the purpose and utility of learning theory in PER broadly.

Why do we use theories? Why are they necessary or useful?
The short answer is that theories are useful at all stages of the research process. When running an intervention, such as new instructional technique, theory can provide an explanatory model for why the intervention worked allowing the researchers to move beyond documenting the fact that it did work. When analyzing data, qualitative or quantitative, theory can direct the researchers for what to pay attention to and what is important in that context.  In other words, theory can help sharpen our lens by reducing the experimental space needed to explore and focusing attention on the specific phenomena of interest. This becomes extremely important in complex learning environments like classrooms where the number of things one could pay attention to is potentially overwhelming. Theory helps define the limitations and boundaries of the phenomena of interest and the overall research study. Once the analysis is completed and the research is being presented, theory can help provide justification for the choices made, it can also increase or decrease the credibility of the research. It can assist us to generalize our results to similar or different contexts and learning environments. The incorporation of PER results into physics classrooms could be advanced by organizing the multitude of empirical findings in PER into more general theories of learning. Generalizable learning theory could make PER more accessible to those who want to transform their classrooms and the learning outcomes of their students. Finally, we as researchers all have assumptions about what we find valuable and important and these assumptions guide our work. Often these assumptions are implicit, but theory can aid us in making these assumptions explicit; making assumptions explicit is important for questioning them and helping others understand our assumptions and how they influence the research, which is important for understanding the findings, their contribution and limitations.

What are the ways in which we build, modify and integrate and use theories?
The group that discussed this sub-topic veered away from the question and towards the challenges that educational theorists in PER face. We concluded that there is a need for more awareness within the community that theory-creation work counts as worthwhile research, and should be acknowledged in publication venues. We observed that many proceedings, journals, conference proposal forms, etc. seem to assume that all research is experimental and will involve data analysis. Yet, many of us felt that theory-creation should be viewed as valuable intellectual contribution. These concerns were split into two veins: (a) Working with the research community to encourage the valuing of and paying attention to theory, and (b) Working to develop and improve a theory. In other words, “using” theory vs. “making” theory are both valuable intellectual contributions to our community and many of us felt that they should be recognized as such.

What are the tools or resources we could create to help people use theories, particularly those who are new to learning theory?
The group discussed tools and other resources that could help researchers use theories. There are an abundance of reviews, books, and papers available in the broader educational community (one particularly good one the group discussed was Eisenhart, 1991), but finding and/or making sense of them without a mentor can be challenging for any researcher attempting to coordinate new theories with their own research program. As such, several mechanisms for organizing and translating these articles for the specific contexts of PER were suggested: One option would be a series of review articles that highlight different theoretical frameworks and are written as a primer to each. Another option proposed would be to invite a group of authors to collaborate on a series of short papers around different theoretical frameworks and structure those papers around key questions that cross-cut theoretical frameworks (e.g. What counts as learning? What kind of empirical data is employed and how is it analyzed?). Challenges may include finding authors with relevant expertise and the difficulty of condensing inherent complex theories to a short summary. Yet, if these challenges could be sufficiently mastered the payoff would be more access points for researchers who are new to using learning theories.

Although there is no silver bullet for the challenges we face in developing and using learning theories, the group felt strongly about the importance of learning theories in PER. We recognized that work is needed to continue finding entry points for new researchers into learning theories and for the community to support members in using theory in all stages of the research and dissemination process.

We would like to thank all members of the working group, and particularly Leslie Atkins Elliott, Ian Beatty, Rosemary Russ, and Ben van Dusen for their contributions to this working group report.

Members of the “Theory” working group include: Leslie Atkins Elliott, Lauren Barth-Cohen, Ian Beatty, David Brookes, Jesper Haglund, Shuly Kapon, Cedric Linder, Valeria Otero, Rosemary Russ, Ellie Sayre, John Stewart, and Ben van Dusen.

1. Eisenhart, M. (1991). Conceptual frameworks for research circa 1991: Ideas from a cultural anthropologist; implications for mathematics education researchers (Plenary address).” Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education. Blacksburg, VA.

Lauren Barth-Cohen is a Research Assistant Professor in the department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami. She has a PhD in Science and Math Education from the University of California, Berkeley, and completed a post-doc at the University of Maine. Her research interests include conceptual change in science, physics education, and student and teacher learning through scientific practices.

David Brookes is a faculty member at California State University, Chico. He has a PhD in physics with an emphasis on Physics Education Research from Rutgers University, and he has post-doctoral experience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His primary research interest is in the interplay between language and cognition and how it plays out in the physics classroom.

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.