Physics Education Research Documents

Overviews / Introductions to PER

  • An Introduction to Physics Education Research (2009)
    This article aims to introduce the reader to the field of Physics Education Research (PER). Topics include the difference between Physics Education Research and Physics Education/curriculum development, a brief history of PER in the US, and some of the research traditions within PER (current types of PER, types of questions asked, research methods used, etc.). By necessity, many important aspects of the field have been omitted in an effort to produce a short, readable overview.
  • Teaching with the Physics Suite (2001)
    The bible of PER. An overview of the history, motivation for PER, the psychology ground work, the implications for practise and various teaching practises. Start here!
  • RL- PER1: Resource Letter on Physics Education Research (1999)
    The purpose of this Resource Letter is to provide an overview of research on the learning and teaching of physics.

Pedagogical Techniques

  • Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class (2011)
    We compared the amounts of learning achieved using two different instructional approaches under controlled conditions. We measured the learning of a specific set of topics and objectives when taught by 3 hours of traditional lecture given by an experienced highly rated instructor and 3 hours of instruction given by a trained but inexperienced instructor using instruction based on research in cognitive psychology and physics education.
  • Making Meaning with Math in Physics: A Semantic Analysis (2010)
    Physics makes powerful use of mathematics, yet the way this use is made is often poorly understood. Professionals closely integrate their mathematical symbology with physical meaning, resulting in a powerful and productive structure. But because of the way the cognitive system builds expertise through binding, experts may have difficulty in unpacking their well established knowledge in order to understand the difficulties novice students have in learning their subject.
  • Reinventing College Physics for Biologists: Explicating an epistemological curriculum (2009)
    The University of Maryland Physics Education Research Group (UMd-PERG) carried out a five-year research project to rethink, observe, and reform introductory algebra-based (college) physics. This class is one of the Maryland Physics Department's large service courses, serving primarily life-science majors. After consultation with biologists, we re-focused the class on helping the students learn to think scientifically – to build coherence, think in terms of mechanism, and to follow the implications of assumptions.
  • Modeling Applied to Problem Solving (2009)
    We describe a modeling approach to help students learn expert problem solving. Models are used to present and hierarchically organize the syllabus content and apply it to problem solving, but students do not develop and validate their own Models through guided discovery. Instead, students classify problems under the appropriate instructor-generated Model by selecting a system to consider and describing the interactions that are relevant to that system.
  • Investigative Science Learning Environment – A Science Process Approach to Learning Physics (2007)
    We describe an interactive method of teaching, Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE), that helps students learn physics by engaging in proc-esses that mirror the activities of physicists when they construct and apply knowl-edge. These processes involve observing, finding patterns, building and testing ex-planations of the patterns, and using multiple representations to reason about physical phenomena. ISLE is a comprehensive learning system that provides a general phi-losophy and specific activities that can be used in "lectures" (interactive meetings where students construct and test ideas), recitations (where students learn to represent them in multiple ways while solving problems) and labs (where students learn to de-sign their own experiments to test hypotheses and solve practical problems).
  • Effectiveness of different tutorial recitation teaching methods and its implications for TA training (2007)
    We present results from a comparative study of student understanding for students who attended recitation classes that used different teaching methods. Student volunteers from our introductory calculus-based physics course attended a special recitation class that was taught using one of four different teaching methods. A total of 272 students were divided into approximately equal groups for each method. Students in each class were taught the same topic, "Changes in Energy and Momentum," from Tutorials in Introductory Physics. The different teaching methods varied in the amount of student and teacher engagement.
    (Thesis) A classroom management technique called modeling discourse management was developed to enhance the modeling theory of physics. Modeling discourse management is a student-centered management that focuses on the epistemology of science. Modeling discourse is social constructivist in nature and was designed to encourage students to present classroom material to each other. In modeling discourse management, the instructor's primary role is of questioner rather than provider of knowledge.
  • Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results (2001)
    We report data from ten years of teaching with Peer Instruction ~PI! in the calculus- and algebra-based introductory physics courses for nonmajors; our results indicate increased student mastery of both conceptual reasoning and quantitative problem solving upon implementing PI. We also discuss ways we have improved our implementation of PI since introducing it in 1991.
  • Evaluation of the Workshop Physics Dissemination Project (1997)
    An evaluation of the implementation of the Workshop Physics program at a variety of schools.
  • Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses (1997)
    A survey of pre/post-test data using the Halloun–Hestenes Mechanics Diagnostic test or more recent Force Concept Inventory is reported for 62 introductory physics courses enrolling a total number of students N56542. A consistent analysis over diverse student populations in high schools, colleges, and universities is obtained if a rough measure of the average effectiveness of a course in promoting conceptual understanding is taken to be the average normalized gain.
  • Instructor's Guide to Process-Oriented Guided-Inquiry Learning
    Discussions and studies revealing that traditional teaching methods in higher education no longer meet students' educational needs have led to several reform initiatives. Some of these initiatives focus on changing the curriculum and course content; others seek to utilize computerbased multimedia technology for instruction; and some promote more student involvement in class and seek to engage students in learning.

Group Learning

Forces and Newton's Laws

  • Do students use and understand free-body diagrams? (2009)
    Physics education literature recommends using multiple representations to help students understand concepts and solve problems. However, there is little research concerning why students use the representations and whether those who use them are more successful. This study addresses these questions using free-body diagrams diagrammatic representations used in problems involving forces as a type of representation.
  • What course elements correlate with improvement on tests in introductory Newtonian mechanics? (2009)
    In an MIT calculus based introductory Newtonian mechanics course we study the effectiveness of various instructional course elements: electronic and written homework, collaborative group problems, and class participation. We measure effectiveness by the slope of the regression line between a student's score (used as a proxy for participation) on a particular course element and his normalized gain on the various assessment instruments.
  • Comparing Three Methods for Teaching Newton's Second Law (2009)
    As a follow-up to a study comparing learning of Newton's Third Law when using three different forms of tutorial instruction, we have compared student learning of Newton's Second Law (NSL) when students use the Tutorials in Introductory Physics, Activity-Based Tutorials, or Open Source Tutorials.
  • Comparing three methods for teaching Newton's third law (2007)
    Although guided-inquiry methods for teaching introductory physics have been individually shown to be more effective at improving conceptual understanding than traditional lecture-style instruction, researchers in physics education have not studied differences among reform-based curricula in much detail. Several researchers have developed University of Washington–style tutorial materials, but the different curricula have not been compared against each other. Our study examines three tutorials designed to improve student understanding of Newton's third law: the University of Washington's Tutorials in Introductory Physics TIP, the University of Maryland's Activity-Based Tutorials ABT, and the Open Source Tutorials OST also developed at the University of Maryland.
  • Using the System Schema Representational Tool to Promote Student Understanding of Newton's Third Law (2005)
    The Modeling Instruction program at Arizona State University has developed a representational tool, called a system schema, to help students make a first level of abstraction of an actual physical situation [1]. A system schema consists of identifying and labeling all objects of interest from a given physical situation, as well as all the different types of interactions between the objects.
  • Free-Body Diagrams: Necessary or Sufficient? (2005)
    The Rutgers PAER group is working to help students develop various scientific abilities. One of the abilities is to create, understand and learn to use for qualitative reasoning and problem solving different representations of physical processes such as pictorial representations, motion diagrams, free-body diagrams, and energy bar charts. Physics education literature indicates that using multiple representations is beneficial for student understanding of physics ideas and for problem solving.

The Force Concept Inventory

Electricity and Magnetism

  • Can Computer Simulations Replace Real Equipment in Undergraduate Laboratories? (2004)
    This paper examines the effects of substituting computer simulations in place of real laboratory equipment in the second semester of a large-scale introductory physics course. The direct current (DC) circuit laboratory was modified to compare the effects of using computer simulations with the effects of using real light bulbs, meters and wires. Three groups of students, those who used real equipment, those who used computer simulations, and those who had no lab experience, were compared in terms of their mastery of physics concepts and skills with real equipment. Students who used the simulated equipment outperformed their counterparts both on a conceptual survey of the domain and in the coordinated tasks of assembling a real circuit and describing how it worked.
  • Improving Students' Conceptual Understanding of Conductors and Insulators (2007)
    We examine the difculties that introductory physics students, undergraduate physics majors, and physics graduate students have with concepts related to conductors and insulators covered in introductory physics by giving written tests and interviewing a subset of students.We nd that even graduate students have serious difculties with these concepts.We develop tutorials related to these topics and evaluate their effectiveness by comparing the performance on written pre-/post-tests and interviews of students who received traditional instruction vs. those who learned using tutorials.
  • Students' understanding of direct current resistive electrical circuits (2003)
    Both high school and university students' reasoning regarding direct current resistive electric circuits often differ from the accepted explanations. At present, there are no standard diagnostic tests on electric circuits. Two versions of a diagnostic instrument were developed, each consisting of 29 questions. The information provided by this test can provide instructors with a way of evaluating the progress and conceptual difficulties of their students.
    To fill the need for a tool testing introductory, undergraduates' knowledge of basic concepts in electricity and magnetism (EM), the investigator has developed a sixty-six item, multiple-choice diagnostic exam (DEEM).
  • Comparing Experts and Novices in Solving Electrical Circuit Problems with the Help of Eye-Tracking (2009)
    In order to help introductory physics students understand and learn to solve problems with circuits, we must first understand how they differ from experts. This preliminary study focuses on problem-solving dealing with electrical circuits. We investigate difficulties novices have with circuits and compare their work with those of experts. We incorporate the use of an eye-tracker to investigate any possible differences or similarities on how experts and novices solve electrical circuit problems.
  • Voltage is the Most Difficult Subject for Students in Physics by Inquiry's Electric Circuits Module (2007)
    We report on the investigation of multiple sets of data from an electric circuits Physics by Inquiry course on students' ranking of topic difficulty. Students ranked the difficulty of the preceding class almost every class day and they ranked the difficulty of various course sections on a diagnostic (one diagnostic per section). In the OSU Physics by Inquiry (PbI) class, students—a majority of education undergraduates—work in groups, and are checkpointed as they do experiments in a section.

Energy and Momentum

  • Students' conceptual knowledge of energy and momentum (2001)
    We investigate student understanding of energy and momentum concepts at the level of introductory physics by designing and administering a 25-item multiple choice test and conducting individual interviews. We find that most students have difficulty in qualitatively interpreting basic principles related to energy and momentum and in applying them in physical situations. The test development process and a summary of results are presented.
  • Energy In Action: The Construction Of Physics Ideas In Multiple Modes (2010)
    In a course organized around the development of diverse representations, no single mode of expression offers a complete picture of participants' understanding of the nature of energy. Instead, we argue, their understanding is actively constructed through the simultaneous use of a range of quite different kinds of representational resources (Goodwin, 2000; Hutchins, 1995; Ochs, Gonzales, & Jacoby, 1996), including not only words and prosody but also gestures, symbolic objects, participants moving their bodies in concert, and whatever other communicative modes the course invites them to use. Examples are provided from a teacher professional development course on energy.
    The energy thread is a logical outgrowth of the modeling theory of physics instruction; it exemplifies a conceptually and pedagogically coherent theme designed to enhance connections between models inherent in the introductory curriculum. Implementation of the energy thread requires restructuring and reorganization of the existing curriculum.
    In the past three decades, physics education research has primarily focused on student conceptual understanding; little work has been conducted to investigate student difficulties in problem solving. In cognitive science and psychology, however, extensive studies have explored the differences in problem solving between experts and naive students. A major finding indicates that experts often apply qualitative representations in problem solving, but that novices use an equation-centered method. This dissertation describes investigations into the use of multiple representations and visualizations in student understanding and problem solving with the concepts of work and energy.

Waves and Sound

  • Developing, Evaluating and Demonstrating the Use of a Conceptual Survey in Mechanical Waves (2009)
    An understanding of mechanical waves is a pre-requisite for the study of many topics in advanced physics, and indeed in many other disciplines. There have been many research studies in mechanical waves, all of which have revealed that students have trouble with the basic concepts. Therefore, in order for teachers to prepare appropriate instruction for their classes, it is useful to diagnose their students' conceptions—if possible before they enter class.
  • Making sense of how students come to an understanding of physics: An example from mechanical waves (1998)
    While physics education research (PER) has traditionally focused on introductory physics, little work has been done to organize and develop a model of how students come to make sense of the material they learn. By understanding how students build their knowledge of a specific topic, we can develop effective instructional materials. In this dissertation, I describe an investigation of student understanding of mechanical and sound waves, how we organize our findings, and how our results lead to the development of curriculum materials used in the classroom.


  • A Guided Inquiry General Chemistry Course (1999)
    A first-year general chemistry course based on constructivist principles and the learning cycle has been developed. Through the use of cooperative learning techniques, students are active participants in the learning process. No lectures are given; students follow guided inquiry worksheets to develop and understand the course concepts. Groups of about four students are formed and the instructor moves among the groups, serving as a facilitator. The laboratory is designed in the same way as the classroom component of the course.
    The present study was conducted to investigate the degree of effectiveness of cooperative learning instruction over a traditional approach on 11th grade students' understanding of electrochemistry. The study involved forty-one 11th grade students from two science classes with the same teacher. To determine students' misconceptions concerning electrochemistry, the Electrochemistry Concept Test consisting of 8 open-ended and 12 multiple-choice questions was used as a pre-test and some students were interviewed. According to the results, twenty-four misconceptions (six of them initially identified) about electrochemistry were identified.
  • Mini-Lab Activities: Inquiry-Based Lab Activities for Formative Assessment (2009)
    Students everywhere love chemistry demonstrations, especially if they involve explosions. But have you ever wanted to move beyond the "wow" factor and find a way to incorporate active student learning into your demos? What if you could get them to think more deeply about what they're observing, and then find out if they really understand what they've experienced? Those questions initiated our quest to create "interactive demos" at the US Air Force Academy Department of Chemistry. Over the past year and a half, this effort has evolved into inquiry-based learning activities. We now refer to these activities as "mini-labs", because they also contain the additional dimension of a simple formative assessment of a student's knowledge and awareness of chemical principles.


  • Understanding How Students Use Physical Ideas in Introductory Biology Courses (2010)
    The University of Maryland (UMD) Biology Education and Physics Education Research Groups are investigating students' views about the role of physics in introductory biology courses. This paper presents data from an introductory course that addresses the fundamental principles of organismal biology. This course incorporates several topics directly related to physics, including thermodynamics, diffusion, and fluid flow. We examine pre- and post-attitude survey, interview, and class observation data to establish how students consider and employ these physical ideas in the context of their biology course. These results have broad implications as biology and physics instructors consider reforms to meet the interdisciplinary challenges of Bio 2010.
  • Integrated Biology and Undergraduate Science Education: A New Biology Education for the Twenty-First Century? (2010)
    Biological research is in the midst of a revolutionary change due to the integration of powerful technologies along with new concepts and methods derived from inclusion of physical sciences, mathematics, computational sciences, and engineering. As never before, advances in biological sciences hold tremendous promise for surmounting many of the major challenges confronting the United States and the world.
  • Physics for Future Physicians and Life Scientists: a moment of opportunity (2010)
    How should we teach physics to future life scientists and physicians? The physics community has an exciting and timely opportunity to reshape introductory physics courses for this audience. A June 2009 report from the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), as well as the National Research Council's Bio2010 report, clearly acknowledge the critical role physics plays in the contemporary life sciences. They also issue a persuasive call to enhance our courses to serve these students more effectively by demonstrating the foundational role of physics for understanding biological phenomena and by making it an explicit goal to develop in students the sophisticated scientific skills characteristic of our discipline.