A course on integrated approaches
in physics education
Michael C. Wittmann
and John R. Thompson
Department of Physics
and Astronomy, University of Maine
Orono ME 04469-5709
a course designed to teach future educators the different elements of physics
education research (PER), including: research into student learning, content
knowledge from the perspective of how it is learned, and reform-based curricula
together with evidence of their effectiveness.
Course format includes equal parts of studying physics through proven
curricula and discussion of research results in the context of the PER
growth of physics education research (PER) as a research field [1,2] and the ongoing desire to improve teaching
of introductory physics courses using reform-based approaches , there has
been an opportunity to move beyond an apprenticeship model of learning about
PER toward a course-driven structure. At the
University of Maine,
as part of our Master of Science in Teaching program, we have developed and
taught two courses in "Integrated Approaches in Physics Education." These are designed to teach physics content,
PER methods, and results of investigations into student learning.
materials were inspired by conversations in 1999 and 2000 with Noah Finkelstein
(now at University of Colorado
in Boulder). Materials development was led by Michael
Wittmann, with assistance from Dewey Dykstra (Boise State University), Nicole
Gillespie (now at the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation), Rachel Scherr
(University of Maryland), and John Thompson, who later joined the University of
Maine and has since modified the materials while teaching the courses.
The goal of
our course is to build a research-based foundation for future teachers as they
move into teaching. We describe the
origins of the course and the activities that make up a typical learning cycle. We also give one example of student learning
in the course, showing the types of reasoning our future teachers are capable
of and how they use research results to guide their reasoning. We are engaged in a large study to examine
student learning of PER results, though we do not report extensively on these
results in this paper.
2. COURSE GOALS
objectives in designing the Integrated Approaches course are that practicing
and future teachers will: learn relevant physics content knowledge at an
appropriately deep level, become familiar with "best practices" research-based
instructional materials, and gain insight into how students think about physics
through education research into student learning and curriculum
of our course are consistent with those of the Master of Science in Teaching
(MST) program sponsored by the University of Maine Center for Science and
Mathematics Education Research. We wish
for participants to learn content in courses taught using research-guided
pedagogy and curricula, including hands-on, inquiry-based methods. We offer courses that integrate content and
methods learning. By taking such
courses, students learn how to design and conduct science and math education
research and are better able to interpret to the results of this kind of
research to benefit their target population.
They apply these ideas when carrying out their own discipline-specific
education research projects as part of their master's thesis work.
exists under several constraints due to the population targeted for the MST
program. We have designed the course to
be relevant to in-service physics teachers wanting either a deeper
understanding of the physics content they are teaching, experience and exposure
to physics education research, or research-based pedagogical tools. Many from this population are teaching "out
of field," and have little physics background.
Many of our MST students are transitioning from careers in science or
engineering into careers in education, and have little pedagogical content
knowledge (which we use to mean knowledge about how to represent the content
appropriate to teaching) . However,
the course is also taken by second- or third-year physics graduate students who
are doing PER for their Ph.D. work or wishing to improve their teaching skills
as they prepare for careers in academia.
This population typically has not taught outside of teaching
assistantships in college courses.
Finally, we have many MST students from other science and mathematics
fields. As a result, there is a great
variety in physics pedagogical content knowledge among our students. The differences in these populations have led
to interesting discussions which illustrate the importance of both physics and
pedagogical content knowledge for a complete understanding of PER results and
implementations, as well as a deeper understanding of student learning in
3. COURSE DESIGN
Integrated Approaches courses are 3-credit graduate courses that meet twice a
week for a total of 150 minutes. We
teach content knowledge, education research results, and research methods using
a three-tiered structure. Class time is
spent approximately equally on each of the three elements of the course. A research and development project is carried
out in parallel, primarily outside of class time.
each course into content-based units in which we discuss leading curricula, the
research literature related to that material, and emphasize one or two
education research methods. The fall and
spring semester instructional units are presented in tables 1 and 2. In addition to the primary curricula listed
in the tables, we also discuss curricula and instructional strategies such as Just-in-Time Teaching  and Physlets . The two courses are designed to be
independent of each other.
Introductory Physics and materials from Gutwill et al.
Analysis of free response pre- and post-test
Tutorials[9.10], RealTime Physics,
and Powerful Ideas in Physical Science
Free response questions, multiple-choice surveys
(TUG-K and FMCE)
Forces and Newton's
Introductory Physics and UMaryland
Multiple-choice surveys (FCI and FMCE)
TABLE 1: First
semester instructional units.
Tutorials [9,10] and Physics by Inquiry (in development)
Student interviews , comparing multiple-choice to free
response questions 
Work-energy and impulse-momentum
Introductory Physics 
Student interviews , comparing multiple-choice to free
response questions 
Heat and temperature
lab-tutorials and Physics by
Classroom interactions, research-based curriculum
development and modification
TABLE 2: Second
semester instructional units.
science students work through conceptually-oriented research-based materials is
a necessary component of many teaching assistant preparation seminars. By going through instructional
materials, students focus on conceptual understanding by building simple models
of physical phenomena and looking to understand the physics that is taught in a
new way. In the process, students with
weak physics strengthen their content, while those who are stronger see the
physics from a new point of view. Our course
benefits the students even more by having them work through multiple
instructional materials and subsequently participate in classroom discussions
comparing the pros and cons of different curricula. These discussions can be very helpful
in teaching physics content and pedagogical
content knowledge. For example, when
first presenting Newton's Second
Law, RealTime Physics  uses
dynamic situations with a single horizontal force while Tutorials in Introductory Physics  uses static situations with
many forces acting at once.
discussions are guided by education research results on a given topic. Students read papers on student learning of a
given physics topic, evaluation of a given curriculum (in best cases, the one
we are using to teach content knowledge at the time), and ways in which different
models of student reasoning affect curriculum design by researchers and
developers. Because we choose papers
directly connected to the curricula we are studying, students can gain deeper
insight into the origin of the instructional materials and the specific issues
that curriculum developers were hoping to address. Because developers typically use results
beyond their own work, we have a rich collection of literature to reach back
to. We usually assign influential and
well-known papers in PER, typically found in the 1998 AJP Resource Letter in
PER  or more recent results as outlined in the Forum Fall 2005 Newsletter article .
We also include relevant pre-prints or drafts of papers associated with
ongoing research as a way of promoting the idea of PER as an active, growing,
methods are introduced by readings from the PER literature, and students learn
research skills by carrying out research projects in the course. Skills for developing research tools such as
written questions, surveys, and interviews are developed during class
time. Students also spend class time
practicing data analysis. For example,
we introduce students to the process of analyzing written free-response
questions by having them categorize 20 anonymous student responses to the "5
bulbs" question [ 7,8,25] (see Figure 1) - before reading the research results
on this question. We have found that
students unfamiliar with the well known PER results will give wildly varying
(though meaningful, each in their own way) interpretations of the data. By listening to each other's methods,
comparing their work to the literature, and discussing their interpretations,
students develop a better sense of the purpose and possibilities of
research. Similar activities are carried
out when analyzing the Force and Motion Concept Evaluation  or the Test of
Understanding Graphing - Kinematics .
Students are given data tables with student responses and asked to build
models of student reasoning about specific physics content. Furthermore, we have students learn about and
practice clinical interview techniques in class before doing their own
interviews in their class-based research projects. Finally, we have students analyze video of
students working in a classroom situation.
By studying interactions in social groups without teaching assistants,
students can gain a deeper perspective on learning in all elements of a course.
FIG. 1: "5 bulbs" question. Students must rank the brightness of each
Correct response for ideal batteries and bulbs: A = D = E > B = C.
part of the course is to pull together physics and pedagogical content
knowledge, understanding of research methodologies, analysis skills, and
research-based curriculum design into research projects. These research projects were originally done
individually, but are now done in small groups (2-4 students) as either large,
semester-long, projects or a series of smaller projects, depending on the
semester. Typically, students carry out
one cycle of a research and development process. Building on a literature review, students
design interview protocols and conduct individual interviews on a topic, use
results to develop free-response and multiple-choice surveys to get written
data, and analyze data from a relevant population to gain perspective on
student reasoning about a given topic.
Using their results, they must design a draft set of narrowly focused
learning materials that are appropriate to the data they have gathered, the
literature, and what is known about learning in physics.
4. LEARNING IN A TYPICAL
one instruction unit from Table 1 in detail, including data on student's
learning of pedagogical content knowledge in the course. In the electric circuits unit, we emphasized
materials from the Tutorials in
Introductory Physics  while reading papers related to the creation of
the curriculum materials [4,5] and developing skills in analyzing student
written responses on the associated pretest questions.
students must answer the "5 bulbs" question (Figure 1) and discuss - predict, one might say - what an "ideal incorrect
student" might answer in a similar situation.
An incorrect student response would match results from the research
literature and be self-consistent throughout the response (though, of course,
students aren't always consistent when giving wrong answers). In addition to content instruction, students
are given a stack of anonymous student pretest responses to the "5 bulbs"
question and asked to categorize student understanding. They are not given suggestions on categories
and are asked not to read any literature before undertaking the task. One class period is spent on discussions of
different categorizations. In three
years of instruction with more than 20 students, we have discussed more than 15
different kinds of categorizations, with variations including: single- or
double-counting responses, looking for what students do right compared to what
they do wrong, tabulating all responses independently of what model might have
driven their reasoning, and finding different ways of interpreting incorrect
answers. Not all the categorizations are
correct, as can be imagined with students learning the material and the method
the first time. In sum, we teach and
test whether students themselves learn the correct physics concepts and whether
they can predict, analyze, and classify incorrect reasoning they are likely to
encounter when teaching. (In later parts
of the course, we also ask students to suggest, design, or critique
instructional materials which address typical incorrect responses.)
are typically small (between 6 and 10 students) with roughly 3/4 physics
specialists and 1/4 in-service teachers.
It is often useful to break up data according to the student
background. We present data compiled
from two semesters with a total of 13 students.
Of the 9 physics students, all got the "5 bulbs" question correct, while
only 1 of 4 non-physics students did.
Only 6 of the 13 were asked for an "ideal incorrect student"
response. Answers given included current
being "used up," a constant current model, or bulbs closer to the battery being
brighter. Notably, students in the class
who were themselves wrong had far less explicit incorrect answers to give. Unsurprisingly, we regularly find that
students without deep content knowledge in the form of conceptual understanding
are rarely able to predict incorrect reasoning they might encounter in a
classroom and do now know how to address it when they do encounter it.
In a slight
modification to the original "5 bulbs" pretest question, Bradley S. Ambrose at Grand
Valley State University
has added a question that asks students to rank the current through the battery in each of the three circuits in Figure
1. We have anonymous data from questions
asked using his modifications. The
"current question" was not given to the students in our course when they first
took the pretest. Instead, our students
were asked to analyze five anonymous student pretest responses to the extended
"5 bulbs" question on a take-home exam.
As part of their response, they had to discuss the purpose of the
"current question," namely what insight the question gives into student
reasoning that was not already apparent in the original question. (They also had to analyze student responses
to each question and discuss consistency of student responses as part of the
responses illustrate the types of learning we wish them to attain. A biology student with little background in
[The current question] gives insight
into whether or not the students truly consider the battery as a constant
current source. The correct ranking of B
and C being equal, but dimmer than A because current is "shared" might not
fully bring forth the idea of the battery as a constant current source. This is shown in the answers of Student
Although Student 1 shows a similar idea in question 1 that the battery
is a constant current source and doesn't state it explicitly, the answer given
to question 2 confirms the model.
Note that the student compares two student responses to
illustrate the value of the question in giving a more complete interpretation
of student thinking. A physics student
(familiar with Tutorials but not the
unit on circuits) stated:
[The current question] is useful in
prying reasoning from the students. By
asking what is happening at the battery, it is far easier to elicit a clear
"constant current" model, if that is indeed a model which the student
uses. It also allows us to discover if a
student is thinking holistically or piece-wise, by comparing what the student
believes is going on in the battery to . the rest of the circuit.
In this response, the difference between holistic or
piece-wise analysis of the circuit is pointed out. In both examples, we find that students after
instruction are able to carefully interpret student reasoning in a way that is
useful for interpreting curriculum materials and facilitation of student learning.
similar results from all the course units, in which students who begin the
course with little or no content or pedagogical content knowledge attain a much
deeper insight into student reasoning (both correct and incorrect) and how to
affect student learning in the classroom.
In each situation, we find that correct understanding of the physics is
necessary before pedagogical content knowledge can be applied well.
was supported in part by US Dept. of Education grant R125K010106.
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