Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Fall 2005 Newsletter



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A Literary Canon in Physics Education Research
John Thompson and Bradley Ambrose

In recent years the field of physics education research (PER) has experienced tremendous growth in not only the number of professionals within the field but also the depth and diversity of research questions being explored.  Experts in PER have themselves emerged from a variety of academic backgrounds, including physics, science education, and cognitive science.  In August 2005, the conference "Foundations and Frontiers in Physics Education Research" provided an opportunity for PER specialists to compile a list of publications describing research on the teaching and learning of physics that are considered primary and necessary by everyone in the field.  A group of conferees volunteered to accomplish this task. 

In light of the successes achieved in PER and the accelerating expansion of the frontiers of the field, the prospect of assembling a literary canon in PER was viewed as simultaneously necessary and daunting.  In contrast to the existing resource letters in PER and problem solving research,A the desired outcome was a concise list of readings that articulate the fundamental interests and issues of PER, thus providing a common language and point of reference in the field.  The canon could be used, though perhaps with minor modifications, as a resource by new graduate students and faculty members entering the field or by other physics educators who wish to familiarize themselves with seminal and exemplary research and curriculum development in PER.

The PER canon working group divided into teams.  Each team was assigned to compile a list of exemplary readings fitting one of the following general categories:  (a) empirical investigations of student understanding, (b) modeling student learning, (c) PER-based curricular materials, (d) PER-based diagnostic instruments and assessments.  Sources to be included in the former two categories were limited to those that best illustrated particular research methods utilized in PER as well as the types of research questions on which those methods are brought to bear.  For the latter two categories the focus was instead on published PER-based curricula and validated assessment methods that have gained acceptance both within the PER community and in the larger physics education community. 

When the entire working group reconvened to discuss and debate which sources should be included in the canon, it became clear that a single list of 25 or fewer sources would be too restrictive. However, group members agreed upon a two-tiered structure for the canon and, after extensive discussion, selected which readings belonged in the primary tier.  This primary list of PER readings, and the rationale described above for selecting them, was presented to the entire body of conferees by the co-facilitators of the working group.  Those readings are listed below in chronological order of publication, from earliest to most recent.  A few entries list two articles; these articles were originally written as complements to one another, as indicated explicitly in their titles.   

The supplementary readings assigned to a secondary tier included research articles or conceptual surveys that are regarded as essential in PER, but were not the first of their kind, or describe research conducted outside the realm of PER.  (Due to limited space, these readings-which would have more than tripled the size of the list shown here-will instead be cited on the Foundations and Frontiers in Physics Education Research conference website:

Literary canon in PER:  Primary list

1.        "Investigation of student understanding of the concept of velocity in one dimension," D.E. Trowbridge and L.C. McDermott, Am. J. Phys. 48, 1020-1028 (1980); "Investigation of student understanding of the concept of acceleration in one dimension," D.E. Trowbridge and L.C. McDermott, Am. J. Phys. 49, 242-253 (1981).

2.       "Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change," G.J. Posner, K.A. Strike, P. W. Hewson, W.A.Gertzog, Sci. Educ. 66, 211-227 (1982).

3.       "Student understanding of the work-energy and impulse-momentum theorems," R.A. Lawson and L.C. McDermott, Am. J. Phys. 55, 811 (1987).

4.       "A view from physics," L.C. McDermott, in Toward a Scientific Practice of Science Education, edited by M. Gardner, J.G. Greeno, F. Reif, A.H. Schoenfeld,
A. diSessa, and E. Stage (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, 1990), pp. 3-30.

5.       "Learning to think like a physicist:  A review of research-based instructional strategies," A. van Heuvelen, Am. J. Phys. 59, 891-897 (1991).

6.       "Modeling games in the Newtonian world," D. Hestenes, Am. J. Phys. 60, 732-748 (1992).

7.       "Force Concept Inventory," D. Hestenes, M. Wells, and G. Swackhamer, Phys. Teach. 30, 141-158 (1992).

8.       "Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping.  Part 1: Group versus individual problem solving," P. Heller, R. Keith, and S. Anderson, Am. J. Phys. 60, 637-644 (1992); "Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping.  Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups," P. Heller, M. Hollabaugh, Am. J. Phys. 60, 627-636 (1992).

9.       "Research as a guide for curriculum development: An example from introductory electricity. Part I: Investigation of student understanding," L.C. McDermott and P.S. Shaffer, Am. J. Phys. 60, 994 (1992); Printer's erratum: Am. J. Phys. 61, 81 (1993); "Research as a guide for curriculum development: An example from introductory electricity. Part II: Design of instructional strategies," P.S. Shaffer and L.C. McDermott, Am. J. Phys. 60, 1003 (1992).

10.    "Millikan Lecture 1994:  Understanding and teaching important scientific thought processes," F. Reif, Am. J. Phys. 63, 17-32 (1995).

11.    "Using qualitative problem-solving strategies to highlight the role of conceptual knowledge in solving problems," W.J. Leonard, R.J. Dufresne, and J.P. Mestre, Am J. Phys. 64, 1495-1503 (1996).

12.   "More than misconceptions: Multiple perspectives on student knowledge and reasoning, and an appropriate role for education research," D. Hammer, Am. J. Phys. 64, 1316-1325 (1996).

13.   "Student expectations in introductory physics," E.F. Redish, J.M. Saul, and R.N. Steinberg, Am. J. Phys. 66, 212-224 (1998).

14.   "Do they stay fixed?", G.E. Francis, J.P. Adams, and E.J. Noonan, Phys. Teach. 36, 488-490 (1998).

15.   "Assessing student learning of Newton's laws: The Force and Motion Concept Evaluation and the Evaluation of Active Learning Laboratory and Lecture Curricula," R.K. Thornton and D.R. Sokoloff, Am. J. Phys. 66, 338-352 (1998).

16.   "Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses," R.R. Hake, Am. J. Phys. 66, 64-74 (1998).

17.   "First-year physics students' perceptions of the quality of experimental measurements," S. Allie, A. Buffler, L. Kaunda, B. Campbell, and F. Lubben, Int. J. Sci. Educ.20, 447-459 (1998).

18.   "Millikan Lecture 1998:  Building a science of teaching physics," E.F. Redish, Am. J. Phys. 67 (7), 562-573 (1999).

19.   "Computers in teaching science:  To simulate or not to simulate?" R.N. Steinberg, Am. J. Phys. Suppl. 68, S37-S41 (2000).

20.   "Oersted Medal Lecture 2001:  Physics education research-The key to student learning," L.C. McDermott, Am. J. Phys. 69 (11), 1127-1137 (2001).

21.   "Tapping epistemological resources for learning physics," D. Hammer and A. Elby, J. of Learning Sciences 12, 53-90 (2003).

22.   Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite, E.F. Redish (Wiley, 2003), Chapters 2, 7, 8, and 9.B

23.   "A theoretical framework for physics education research: Modeling student thinking," E.F. Redish, from Proceedings of the Varenna Summer School, "Enrico Fermi" Course CLVI, edited by M. Vicentinni and E.F. Redish (IOS Press, Amsterdam), July 2003, pp. 1‑63.

24.   "Cognitive processes and the learning of physics, Part I:  The evolution of knowledge from a Vygotskian perspective," V. Otero, and  "Cognitive processes and the learning of physics, Part II:  Mediated action," V. Otero, from Proceedings of the Varenna Summer School, "Enrico Fermi" Course CLVI, edited by M. Vicentinni and E.F. Redish (IOS Press, Amsterdam), July 2003, pp. 409-445 and pp. 447-471, respectively.


In closing, the authors of this letter, who served as co-facilitators of the group, wish to thank those who participated by sharing their expertise, experience, and insights (and completing homework assigned during unscheduled conference time):  Saalih Allie (Univ. of Cape Town, South Africa), Eric Brewe (Hawai'i Pacific Univ.), Warren Christensen (Iowa State Univ.), Ray Hodges (Univ. of Maryland), Rebecca Lindell (Southern Illinois Univ. Edwardsville), Rosemary Russ (Univ. of Maryland), MacKenzie Stetzer (Univ. of Washington), Michael Wittmann (Univ. of Maine), and Karen Wosilait (Univ. of Washington).

It is expected that, as the field of PER flourishes and evolves, the canon will be revisited and revised appropriately. 


A)   "Resource Letter:  PER-1:  Physics Education Research," L.C. McDermott and E.F. Redish, Am. J. Phys. 67, 755‑767 (1999) and "Resource Letter:  RPS-1:  Research in problem solving," L. Hsu, E. Brewe, T.M. Foster, and K.A. Harper, Am. J. Phys. 72 (9), 1147-1156 (2004).

B) Chapter 2 provides a succinct review of research results that motivate empirical and theoretical investigations in PER.  Chapters 7 through 9 give sketches of various PER-based curricular materials that have been published for use in lecture, recitation, and lab/workshop environments.

John Thompson is Assistant Professor of Physics, Cooperating Assistant Professor of Education and Co-director of the Physics Education Research Laboratory at the University of Maine.  Bradley Ambrose is Associate Professor of Physics at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI.




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