THE IMPLICATIONS OF PHYSICS EDUCATION RESEARCH ON THE TEACHING AT HIGH
SCHOOL AND UNIVERSITY
of Applied Physics I, Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea
The worry about the teaching-learning process in Physics is basically
grounded on the difference observed between what the teacher instructs and what
the student learns. This
discrepancy has been pointed out in a number of different research studies
concerning Physics Education at high school and university level [1-3]. Fortunately, this line of research has made it possible to
transform this issue from coffee-break talk among teachers, where prevail the
anecdote and subjective observations, into documented information from which new
proposals can be made. Therefore,
new proposals need to be theoretically grounded in order to avoid something that
we have already seen in various cases, that is, innovations based on good will
that have led to a confused stirring with no effective advances.
There has been during the last two decades a movement that acknowledges
the need to create and research into innovating proposals to teach physics.
Our position/standpoint is that of developing a model that fits into the
usual structure of University introductory courses to physics for large groups,
but which is based on educational principles emerged as an alternative to school
failure in the last decades and which are widely accepted in the literature
these principles to a standard introductory course produces a result that is
very different from that of traditional courses.
The aim of this paper is to put forward very concisely, the objectives
and theoretical basis of our proposal for introductory courses to Physics in the
last secondary levels (aged 16-18) and first courses at University. A proposal
that takes into account the recent contributions of research into Physics
OBJECTIVES AND THEORETICAL FOUNDING OF THE PROPOSAL
The objective of any educational design is to transform
the students’ level of intellectual achievement from an initial to a final
stage. We shall look into three
basic problems we have to solve in order to reach this objective:
What do students know and how do they reason about Physics while they are
in an initial stage previous to the university instruction we are concerned
What is the desired final stage of intellectual achievement after
instruction, and which are the underlying knowledge and thinking processes
necessary to obtain the desired achievement?
Which are the implementation methods of the model that will make it
possible for the student to succeed from the initial to the final stage?
is the Student’s Initial Stage?
As we have mentioned in the introduction, there is a
continuously growing corpus of research that characterizes the alternative or
initial processes of knowledge and thinking that students bring with them to the
instruction of Physics . When
students listen to a conference,
read the textbook or observe a physical fact, they interpret this information on
the basis of the structure of
knowledge they have. These
structures often include intuitive concepts or “alternative conceptions”
that have proved to be very resistant to change.
Students also present procedures and ways of reasoning
that literature calls “common sense” and which characterize because they are
alternative to the procedures used in scientific work.
This ‘common sense’ methodology has among its features a qualitative
treatment of puntual cases from which general conclusions are drawn, without
looking for coherence among different cases.
In fact, the birth of Physics as a science is a manifestation of a way of
knowing different from “common sense”.
Physics means a rupture with a cognitive structure based on qualitative
treatments, on sensitive evidences and on definitive, certain affirmations
Also, the literature signals that most students have
erroneous conceptions both concerning the nature of scientific knowledge and on
the learning process of science . We
shall try to sum up here in a very concise way some of the ideas underlined by
the literature on the issues mentioned:
Students consider scientific knowledge as a fix immutable collection of
non-related facts and formulae that have little connection to the real world.
Their role as students consists in memorizing the facts and formulae and
reproducing them during exams. Thus, students tend to be passive learners.
Their learning strategies put an excessive emphasis on low level skills,
such as memorization, acritical use of mathematical models …, instead of those
high level ones as analysis, synthesis and self-evaluation.
Usually, students neither use their conceptual knowledge of Physics to
analyze the problem situation qualitatively, nor plan a possible solution before
starting the numerical and algebraical manipulations of equations, they don’t
reason the strategy to follow in the solution, or question the result obtained.
is the final stage we want the student to attain?
In order to determine an appropriate final stage of
intellectual achievement for the students in our course of Introduction to
Physics, we have taken into account the abundant literature concerning the
objectives to reach in introductory courses to Physics during the first
University years. The review of the
literature revealed that the main objectives were that students :
the fundamental principles of Physics (i.e. force laws, energy conservation,
conservation of the moment, Maxwell’s laws).
the general skills of problem solving so that they could apply the concepts
learnt to new situations. That is,
they should use the procedures used by physicists and engineers in order to
solve scientific problems and issues.
To reach these objectives, students need to restructure
their pre-existing knowledge so that the fundamental concepts and principles of
Physics can be interpreted
significantly and be used to solve problem situations.
To achieve this, they must be able to generate a description of the
problem that makes its resolution easier, to make sensible decisions to reach a
solution and to check and assess the solution.
Similarly to what happens in other contexts, procedural
skills are acquired and perfectioned through practicing them.
Saying that they have to set the problem or carry out a qualitative
analysis before starting the equations is not enough.
Doing activities aiming at trying these procedures in class is a must.
In the next section we shall see the implications of such considerations.
processes of educational transformation make it possible for students to get on
from the initial to the final stage?
The research line of students’ alternative
conceptions has revealed the low level of conceptual and procedural knowledge
shown by students after being instructed. These
results reveal the types of reasoning that we usually teach and the sort of
cognitive skills that are being privileged in the class of Physics.
We teachers should be aware of the contributions made by the research on
Science Education and, more concretely, of those aspects that point to the fact
that one of the main difficulties of transmissive
teaching is that it does not teach students how to reason in sciences,
but rather it shows them how to use specialized procedures and the scientific
language in order to argument coherently with the base of knowledge.
As a consequence of the former, the traditional approach which uses
problems to be solved as a tool to teach Physics has been hindered by the fact
that beginners are usually not really able to solve the problems (“I
understand the theory, but I can’t solve the problems” or “I understand
the sample problems in the text but those in the exam are very different”)
This has given rise to proposals which – letting
apart some small differences – basically agree in adopting a conception of
learning as active
construction of new knowledge by the own learner, which (s)he will
necessarily build on his/her previous knowledge. We can thus speak of the emergence of a constructivistic
model of science learning which we consider to be a useful starting point in
order to design a teaching that makes students progress from their initial stage
of intellectual achievement through the final stage wished .
That is, a new type of teaching that manages to shift the students’
conceptual schemes orienting them towards scientific conceptions currently
accepted as correct.
These constructivistic conceptions of learning have led
to the design of various instructional models that share an interest in
change (going from an initial stage to a wished final one).
More precisely, the learning strategy that we can call conceptual
change has the following basic and differentiating elements: the
identification of the ideas that students already have and the creation of
cognitive conflicts that generate dissatisfaction towards these ideas among
Also, new contributions of the History and Philosophy
of Science point that scientific changes or revolutions not only transform the
old theory but changes also occur in the forms of seeing the world (ontological
component), in the forms of reasoning (epistemological component), in the
methods (methodological component) and in the own values and aims of the new
theory (axiological component). In
particular, the changes that occur in an “accepted” theory – “soft”
changes if compared to paradigmatical changes or scientific revolutions – are
gradual due to the fact that the theory to be modified has to its credit many
successful results and there exist stages of partial modifications where a new
theory that promises good results is explored.
It is only after having solved enough “new” problems that this
exploratory phase can lead to its real “acceptation”.
Meanwhile, new elements incorporate to the old theory without it being
abandoned. Furthermore, this change
is a collective process influenced not only by internal validity criteria within
the own theoretical corpus, based on deductive logic, but also by such external
validity criteria as personal values, sociological context of the scientific
community, political pressures, etc. Therefore,
when one of these changes takes place there are epistemological and axiological
transformations besides a transformation of the concepts of the old theory.
In line with this, the
conceptual change cannot happen if we only take into account preconceptionS;
this must be accompanied by deep methodological, axiological and ontological
changes instead [13-15]. The
ways of reasoning associated to the students’ ‘methodology of common
sense’ would be one of main difficulties of the conceptual change and they can
be identified by such features as the ones described in section 2.1 about the
students’ initial stage.
The previous considerations imply that students will
only be able to overcome their ‘common sense’ methodology and consequently
build knowledge through practicing, guided by the teacher, such essential
aspects of the scientific methodology as imagining solutions to problems under
the form of hypotheses, devising experiments for the testing of hypotheses, etc.
Therefore, we conclude that a teaching strategy focusing on approaching
more or less open problem situations that have some
interest and in a way that is coherent with the nature of scientific work which
we want the student to become familiar with.
The teaching/learning model of Physics as oriented
research that we
propose consists in placing students in a situation of “beginner researchers”
that have the support of the teacher as an expert.
This proposal inspires in the training period of researchers, during
which they get familiar with the characteristics of scientific work while they
approach problems known to those who direct the research.
In this process, the directors of the research can orientate correctly
the work of the beginners and facilitate their rapid progress.
According to this metaphor, the teacher (who acts as director of the
research) helps the students to ask the convenient questions and nuances, or
reformulates the results obtained by the students (who act as a trainee).
TEACHING AND LEARNING PHYSICS ACORDING WITH SCIENTIFIC METHODOLOGY
A series of didactic strategies have been developed
(i.e. group working, collaborative solution of problems) and they have been
successfully used in Secondary levels and in small classes (25-35 students) to
teach concepts and solve problems [16-19].
The elements of a science class with a constructivistic orientation such
as the one pointed previously, will attempt to give priority to those factors
that have proved that they can strengthen learning. To achieve this, in figure 1 we have represented the three
basic components of the model called teaching/learning
as oriented research.
Figure 1. Essential
elements of a class according to teaching/learning as oriented research.
in the task
The first element (the task) responds to the cognitive
scope already explained, according to which learning is strengthened when the
learner has to face by himself tasks contained in the school curriculum based on
the processing of appropriate, interesting open problem situations.
These tasks are prepared by the teacher or group of teachers before the
instructional interaction under the form of activity
programs that attempt to foresee the development of the program, and
to take into account before they happen, the students’ conceptual and
procedural shortcomings, so often related to their alternative ideas.
This new insight of the curriculum, focusing more on what the student has
to do, has been strongly supported by constructivistic instances. In this sense,
Millar and Driver  point out that we must tend towards a new idea of the
curriculum, which should switch from prescribing contents and skills the student
has to acquire, to an idea focusing more on the activity program through which
that knowledge can be reconstructed and those skills can be acquired.
In the working out of the activity program for every
subject, an argumental thread is used in order to determine the specific
contents, multiple contexts for every concept, focuses on crucial concepts and
principles, uses explicit problem-solving strategies, uses problem situations
well set into context and implements evaluation practices to reinforce the
behavior desired in the student .
This adaptation of the model to a large class of
introductory Physics demands a restructuring of our Physics course.
This will be based on an activity program, in such a way that the
strategy of action in the classroom will include the following features:
Proposing interesting problem situations that favor the construction of a
coherent body of knowledge.
Qualitative approach to problem situations in order to make them more
precise and so achieve to define them as problems. In this stage, students will
have to make explicit their conceptual schemes.
Scientific scope to approach the solution to the problem previously
delimited. A complex stage that
involves introducing concepts, proposing hypotheses, elaborating strategies to
solve or carry out an experimentation plan and the analysis of results.
Propose the use of the new knowledge in different situations, and more
precisely, attaching special importance to the relationships Science/Technology/Society
and to the proposal of new problem situations in order to continue the
reconstruction of knowledge at a deeper level.
in the structure
structure of the class must keep in mind the social character of the
construction of scientific knowledge. Organizing
the classroom into small groups of students similar to research groups, who work
on the activities under the direction and guidance of the teacher, can foster
the construction of knowledge.
in the functioning of the classes
A third crucial element in this type of classes is the
belief that the
functioning of these groups is not autonomous, that is, the
interactions among the groups and between the groups and the scientific
community represented by the teacher, the textbook, etc. so that the problem
situations presented can be feedbacked, completed, validated or refuted.
In our introductory course to Physics classes have a
strong component of discussion during the solution of questions.
A discussion session usually has three parts: introduction, task of
cooperative solution of work activities and conclusion.
First, the teacher outlines briefly the learning aims of the lesson.
Groups are formed in an informal way, following the places occupied in
the classroom. The teacher incites
the groups of students to carry out the task.
Students usually have some time in the class to think about each activity,
which should add to the time spent out of the hours of classes, either
individually or with the teacher during the tutorship hours.
The teacher observes the groups, makes a diagnosis of the problems and
intervenes in order to guide a group only when they are not progressing enough.
At the end of each activity the teacher writes on the blackboard the
results found by the students and reformulates them as necessary in order to
correct conceptual questions.
In order to increase the efficiency of solving problem
situations in cooperative groups, more stable workgroups are programmed for
problem solving, these groups being the same as for laboratory practices.
These groups have to write six reports during the term, where they must
include the solution to six “open problems” that are given to them
throughout the course. These
reports are corrected by the teacher and contribute to the final mark.
The formulation, solution and sharing of these problems is carried out in
six 2 hour’s sessions that correspond to tutorial sessions.
Also, if we have modified the task, the structure of
the class, and have promoted interaction mechanisms between the students and the
scientific community, and if besides the conceptual objectives we have meant to
instill in our students procedural and methodological capacities, the evaluation
system to use needs to be coherent with the characteristics of the
model followed, that is:
Evaluation must include
all the aspects of learning (conceptual, procedural and attitudinal).
Evaluation must be carried out on clear
criteria that refer to the objectives
fixed and the contents
Evaluation takes place throughout
the whole learning process, the evaluating activities being
integrated in it.
Evaluation situations must help students in improving their knowledge and
regulating their progress in the subject.
4. PROVISIONAL CONCLUSIONS
Within the framework of our proposal we are practicing
in the classroom these ‘research programs’ or ‘activity programs’ and we
can say, provisionally, that students that have worked in them do not only take
into account the concepts taught but that they also use arguments and forms of
reasoning that are more elaborated and developed. The results obtained by experimental students are
significantly better as far as learning is concerned.
The experimental designs devised as well as the results
we are obtaining are the basis of several doctoral thesis in Physics Education I
am supervising in the department of Applied Physics I of the University of the Basque Country (Spain)
. After some years of
implementation of our materials we are now developing and re-devising the
instruments in order to put to the test the understanding reached by students.
These instruments aim at analyzing the effectiveness of the activity
programs developed and to achieve this we have conceived a series of
questionnaires so as to analyze the degree of understanding of the concepts
instructed and the way of reasoning when facing different problem situations.
As an example of the results obtained, the percentage
of registered students that took the final exam in the 1st year of Technical
Industrial Engineering is shown below (see figure 2). The percentage of students which passed the exam the two
years previous to the introduction of the new teaching method (95/96, 96/97) is
reported (see figure 3) togheter with the percentage of students that have got a
pass in our subject during the first three years of experience .
We need to point out that the exams proposed are reviewed by other
teachers in our Department, who guarantee the correct scientific level of the
Figure 2. Percentage
of registered students that take the final exam.
Figure 3. Percentage
of registered students that get a pass in the subject.
We can conclude from these results that there has been
a remarkable improvement in teaching effectiveness although results can still be
better. As an example of students
acceptation of this way of teaching we offer the results of a questionnaire
completed by students doing the 1st year of Engineering at the end of the
academic year 99/00. The
questionnaire has four sections: contents, way of working in the classroom,
attitude towards the subject and evaluation system.
Students were asked to assess on a 0 to 10 scale their agreement or
disagreement with a series of statements in the questionnaire.
1.1. Adequate amount of contents
1.2. Objectives were clear
1.3. The objectives aimed were interesting
1.4. The difficulty of the activities was adequate
1.5. Concepts are connected
2.1. Method suitable for contents
2.2. The classroom gathered the conditions needed to
2.3. Activities adjust to what has been learnt
2.4. Adequate pooling of ideas is carried out in
2.5. Good working climate in the classroom
3.1. Interesting lessons
3.2. I wish the time for the class never came
3.3. I support the teacher
3.4. Cooperation climate
4.1. I find the evaluation system adequate
4.2 You have the chance to reflect on the exam taken
and to comment on it
Table 1. Results
of the questionnaire completed by students in 1st year of Technical
The results of the innovation we are undertaking
support our conviction that individual persons can make a difference as to
whether innovation takes place or not. This
conviction does not arise from an altruistic or romantic feeling, but has been
corroborated by many innovating experiences that the scientific community in the
domain of Physics Education has admitted as beneficial.
For a long time, achieving quality education has been a challenge to both
teachers and researchers, but the little investment in educational research has
resulted in teachers being left to their own goodwill and intuition.
Recent changes in educational policies and incipient research in the
specific field of Science Education by teachers proficient in their discipline (Physics,
Chemistry, Biology, Geology...) give us teachers a chance to contribute with
more and more efficient innovation in the classroom.
Therefore, in order to advance towards quality education, our innovation
needs to ground on the bases of research acknowledged as reputable by the
community of Science Education researchers and we need to share our knowledge
with other colleagues.
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