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By Charles Henderson and Paula Heron
Do laboratory experiments help students learn concepts? Why do so few women choose to major in physics? What is the most important skill for a high school physics teacher to develop?
Physics education researchers tackle these and many other questions about why students study physics, what they learn, and how their experiences affect their views about the discipline. Much of physics education research (PER) focuses on the concepts, principles, and habits of mind of physics, the traditional teaching methods and the culture of physics. As a result, PER has for many years found a home in the professional associations, conferences, and publication venues of physics. As the Physical Review journal family marks its 125th anniversary, we look back at the founding and development of Physical Review Physics Education Research in 2005, now a central and open-access home for this work.
The close connection between PER and physics as a discipline was acknowledged by the American Physical Society Council in its 1999 Statement on Research in Physics Education . The Council recognized that implementation of PER ideas was best accomplished by having physicists within physics departments who specialized in PER. This statement came at a critical time for PER and helped usher in an era of rapid growth in the number of researchers, the number of Ph.D. programs, and a broadening of the field of inquiry.
At the same time, the development and adoption of many now-common teaching strategies and tools were spurred by advances in PER. These improvements could not have been possible without a strong research base that includes systematic empirical investigation and theoretical speculation. Observations and insights, including accounts of both successful and unsuccessful interventions, must be widely disseminated and subject to vigorous debate and replication. Room must be made for investigations that have no obvious short-term implications for the classroom.
As with any other subfield of physics, cumulative progress depends on a knowledge base of trustworthy results — traditionally provided by an archival journal. Around the time of the 1999 Statement, PER was in a situation in which rapid growth was outstripping the ability of other journals, such as the American Journal of Physics, to support the field.
It was within this context that founding editor Bob Beichner, working with the APS Forum on Education and the American Association of Physics Teachers, conceived of Physical Review Physics Education Research (PRPER). The journal began publication in 2005. The initial Editorial Board was chaired by Nobel laureate Carl Wieman and included five other well-respected researchers. Board members continue to be among the leading international figures in PER.
PRPER has and continues to accept articles that cover the full range of research related to the teaching and/or learning of physics. The journal has grown substantially along with the field of PER. In 2006, its first full year, the journal published 14 articles, compared with 75 articles published in 2017. The journal has also grown from a largely U.S.-centric journal to a truly international journal; currently, about 45% of articles received are from non-U.S. authors.
In addition to supporting knowledge development within the field of PER, PRPER seeks to be a resource for physics teachers, and so PRPER is distributed online with free open access. This was an important feature of the journal from the very beginning since the founders felt that knowledge about the learning and teaching of physics should be freely available to a worldwide audience. Once a paper is accepted after thorough peer review, authors with financial need may request a full or partial waiver of the article-processing charges. There is a complete separation between funding and editorial functions; at no time do the editors know which authors have requested or been granted waivers.
Although published by PER researchers for PER researchers, most articles are not overly technical, and thus the journal can be a useful resource for non-PER physics instructors who want guidance about a teaching/learning issue. There have been many important findings published in the journal.
For someone new to the journal, a useful way to learn about a particular area of PER is to look at our focused collections. These are collections of new research articles on a particular theme. There are currently four published collections and two more underway.
After focusing primarily on introductory level physics for decades, PER now has much to say about upper-level physics as well. For example, the 2015 focused collection on PER in Upper-Division Physics Courses  contains 19 research articles related to specific upper-division courses, such as quantum mechanics, as well as to topics that cut across multiple upper-division courses, such as students’ abilities to apply mathematics in physics.
Most recently, PRPER featured a focused collection published in June 2018 highlighting the current state of the field of physics education research as it relates to astronomy education research.
Editors’ suggestions are another journal feature. These are designed to help readers identify high-quality innovative articles. Suggestions are based on referee recommendations, with the final decision made by the editors. For example, a recently selected article that focused on graduate admissions procedures argues that emphasizing innate talent over other factors may be limiting the diversity of admitted students .
The field of PER has grown dramatically in the 13 years since the first issue of PRPER was published. There has been a huge expansion in the number of PER researchers, as well as the topics studied within PER. Strong physics education is essential for a strong physics community. We are delighted that PRPER is the central home for research-based knowledge related to physics education.
Charles Henderson is the Lead Editor of Physical Review Physics Education Research and Professor of Physics, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008, USA. Paula Heron is Associate Editor of Physical Review Physics Education Research and Professor of Physics, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
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