Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Spring 2006 Newsletter



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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


            We describe 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 literature.


PACS: 01.40Fk


            With the 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 [3], 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. 

            Course 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.


            Our 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 effectiveness. 

            The goals 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. 

            The course 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) [4].  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 physics.


            The 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.

            We split 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 [22] and Physlets [23].  The two courses are designed to be independent of each other.


Physics content

Curriculum emphasized

Research method

Electric circuits

Tutorials in Introductory Physics[5] and materials from Gutwill et al.[6]

Analysis of free response pre- and post-test responses[7,8]


Activity-Based Tutorials[9.10], RealTime Physics[11], and Powerful Ideas in Physical Science[12]

Free response questions, multiple-choice surveys (TUG-K[13] and FMCE[16])

Forces and Newton's Laws

Tutorials in Introductory Physics[5] and UMaryland "epistemological tutorials"[14]

Multiple-choice surveys (FCI[15] and FMCE[16])

TABLE 1:  First semester instructional units.


Physics content

Curriculum emphasized

Research method

Wave physics and sound

Activity-Based Tutorials [9,10] and Physics by Inquiry (in development)

Student interviews [17], comparing multiple-choice to free response questions [18]

Work-energy and impulse-momentum

Tutorials in Introductory Physics [5]

Student interviews [19], comparing multiple-choice to free response questions [20]

Heat and temperature

UC Berkeley lab-tutorials and Physics by Inquiry [21]

Classroom interactions, research-based curriculum development and modification

TABLE 2:  Second semester instructional units.


            Having advanced 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 [11] uses dynamic situations with a single horizontal force while Tutorials in Introductory Physics [5] uses static situations with many forces acting at once.

            Curriculum 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 [24] or more recent results as outlined in the Forum Fall 2005 Newsletter article [2].  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, dynamic field.

            Research 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 [13] or the Test of Understanding Graphing - Kinematics [10].  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 bulb. 
Correct response for ideal batteries and bulbs: A = D = E > B = C.

FIG. 1:  "5 bulbs" question.  Students must rank the brightness of each bulb. 
Correct response for ideal batteries and bulbs: A = D = E > B = C.


            A final 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.


            We outline 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 [2] 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. 

            Before instruction, 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.)

            Class sizes 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 take-home test.) 

            Student responses illustrate the types of learning we wish them to attain.  A biology student with little background in physics stated:

[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 5.  .  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.

            We have 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. 


            This work was supported in part by US Dept. of Education grant R125K010106.



1     M.C. Wittmann, P. Heron, and R.E. Scherr, "Overview of the Foundations and Frontiers in Physics Education Research Conference," APS Forum on Education Fall 2005 Newsletter, 7 (2005).

2     J.R. Thompson and B.S. Ambrose, "A Literary Canon in Physics Education Research," APS Forum on Education Fall 2005 Newsletter, 16 (2005).

3     C.E. Wieman and K.K. Perkins, "Transforming Physics Education," Physics Today 58 (11), 36 (2005).

4     L. Shulman, "Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching," Educational Researcher 15 (2), 4 (1986).

5     L.C. McDermott, P.S. Shaffer, and The Physics Education Group at the University of Washington, Tutorials in Introductory Physics. (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2002).

6     J.P. Gutwill, J.R. Frederiksen, and B.Y. White, "Making Their Own Connections: Students' Understanding of Multiple Models in Basic Electricity," Cognition and Instruction 17 (3), 249 (1999).

7     L.C. McDermott and P.S. Shaffer, "Research as a guide for curriculum development: An example from introductory electricity. Part I: Investigation of student understanding," American Journal of Physics 61, 994 (1992).

8     L.C. McDermott and P.S. Shaffer, "Research as a guide for curriculum development: An example from introductory electricity. Part II: Design of an instructional strategy," American Journal of Physics 61, 1003 (1992).

9     M.C. Wittmann, R.N. Steinberg, and E.F. Redish, Activity-Based Tutorials Volume 1: Introductory Physics. (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 2004).

10    M.C. Wittmann, R.N. Steinberg, and E.F. Redish, Activity-Based Tutorials Volume 2: Modern Physics. (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 2005).

11    D.R. Sokoloff, R.K. Thornton, and P.W. Laws, RealTime Physics. (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY, 1998).

12    AAPT, Powerful Ideas in Physical Science. (AIP, College Park, MD).

13    R.J. Beichner, "Testing student interpretation of kinematics graphs," American Journal of Physics 62, 750 (1994).

14    E.F. Redish, D. Hammer, and A. Elby, Learning How to Learn Science: Physics for Bioscience Majors. (NSF grant REC008-7519, 2001-2003).

15    D. Hestenes, M. Wells, and G. Swackhamer, "Force concept inventory," The Physics Teacher 30 (3), 141 (1992).

16    R.K. Thornton and D.R. Sokoloff, "Assessing student learning of Newton's laws: The Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation and the Evaluation of Active Learning Laboratory and Lecture Curricula," American Journal of Physics 66 (4), 338 (1998).

17    M.C. Wittmann, R.N. Steinberg, and E.F. Redish, "Understanding and affecting student reasoning about the physics of sound," International Journal of Science Education 25 (8), 991 (2003).

18    M.C. Wittmann, R.N. Steinberg, and E.F. Redish, "Making Sense of Students Making Sense of Mechanical Waves," The Physics Teacher 37, 15 (1999).

19    R.A. Lawson and L.C. McDermott, "Student understanding of the work-energy and impulse-momentum theorems," American Journal of Physics 55, 811 (1987).

20    T. O'Brien Pride, S. Vokos, and L.C. McDermott, "The challenge of matching learning assessments to teaching goals: An example from the work-energy and impulse-momentum theorems," American Journal of Physics 66, 147 (1998).

21    L.C. McDermott and The Physics Education Group at the University of Washington, Physics by Inquiry. (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1996).

22    G.M. Novak, E.T. Patterson, A.D. Gavrin et al., Just-in-Time-Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology. (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1999).

23    W. Christian and M. Belloni, Physlets: Teaching Physics with Interactive Curricular Material. (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2001).

24    L.C. McDermott and E.F. Redish, "Resource Letter PER-1: Physics Education Research," American Journal of Physics 67, 755 (1999).

25    P.S. Shaffer, "Research as a guide for improving instruction in introductory physics," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 1993.



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