Jenaro Guisasola Aranzabal

Department 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 [4-7]. Applying 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 Education.



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:

1)         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 about?

2)         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?

3)         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?


2.1.      What 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 [8].  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 [9-10].


Also, the literature signals that most students have erroneous conceptions both concerning the nature of scientific knowledge and on the learning process of science [11].  We shall try to sum up here in a very concise way some of the ideas underlined by the literature on the issues mentioned:

A.        Students consider scientific knowledge as a fix immutable collection of non-related facts and formulae that have little connection to the real world.

B.        Their role as students consists in memorizing the facts and formulae and reproducing them during exams. Thus, students tend to be passive learners.

C.        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.

D.        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.


2.2.      What 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 :


1)                 Learn the fundamental principles of Physics (i.e. force laws, energy conservation, conservation of the moment, Maxwell’s laws).

2)                 Learn 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.


2.3.      What 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 [12].  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 promoting conceptual 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 students.


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).



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.


3.1.      Changes 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 [20] 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 [21].

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:

A.      Proposing interesting problem situations that favor the construction of a coherent body of  knowledge.

B.      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.

C.      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.

D.      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.


3.2.      Changes in the structure

The organizational 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. 


3.3.      Changes 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:


l         Evaluation must include all the aspects of learning (conceptual, procedural and attitudinal).

l         Evaluation must be carried out on clear criteria that refer to the objectives fixed and the contents worked on.

l         Evaluation takes place throughout the whole learning process, the evaluating activities being integrated in it.

l         Evaluation situations must help students in improving their knowledge and regulating their progress in the subject.



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) [22].  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 exams.



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.


Aspect studied

1st Year

Mean (s)

1.  Contents Worked On


1.1. Adequate amount of contents

7.2 (0.3)

1.2. Objectives were clear

7.1 (0.4)

1.3. The objectives aimed were interesting

7.2 (0.4)

1.4. The difficulty of the activities was adequate

7.5 (0.4)

1.5. Concepts are connected

8.3 (0.4)

2.  Way of Working


2.1. Method suitable for contents

7.5 (0.5)

2.2. The classroom gathered the conditions needed to learn

7.7 (0.4)

2.3. Activities adjust to what has been learnt

7.2 (0.4)

2.4. Adequate pooling of ideas is carried out in class

8 (0.5)

2.5. Good working climate in the classroom

7.7 (0.4)

3.  Satisfaction


3.1. Interesting lessons

7.2 (0.5)

3.2. I wish the time for the class never came

4.2 (0.7)

3.3. I support the teacher

7.7 (0.4)

3.4. Cooperation climate

7.4 (0.4)

4.  Evaluation System


4.1. I find the evaluation system adequate

7.8 (0.3)

4.2 You have the chance to reflect on the exam taken and to comment on it

8,2 (0.4)


Table 1.  Results of the questionnaire completed by students in 1st year of Technical Industrial Engineering.


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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