University Physics with Physics Education Research
Synopsis of a speech by David Hestenes at the
AAPT conference in 2000 for physics department chairs. (pdf
We review the design,
results and implications of the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) as an
instrument for evaluating the effectiveness of physics instruction at
both the high school and college level. This is one of several
instruments used to evaluate ongoing reforms at ASU.
For several years, we
have been developing a University Physics course organized around
models and modeling to make the subject matter and procedural
knowledge more explicit, systematic and coherent. This has required
extensive “remodeling” of the standard course. The
instructional method employed is a variant of the modeling method
that has proved so successful in high school physics. Students
work in collaborative groups in a technology-rich studio classroom.
With well-documented success in a small classroom environment, we are
currently adapting the approach to a large classroom and developing
workshops for wide dissemination.
Dept. of Physics and Astronomy
Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona 85287-1504
Modeling website: <http://modeling.asu.edu/>
I. Evaluation of Instruction
One basic task for
Physics Education Research (PER) is to develop instruments for
evaluating outcomes of instruction. To enable fair comparison of
different instructional methods, instruments must be carefully
constructed, validated and calibrated.
mechanics instruction, the most widely used instrument, by far, is the
Force Concept Inventory (FCI). We have FCI data on more than
20,000 physics students at every level from 8th grade to
first year graduate and every kind of school from urban and rural high
schools to Harvard University. This extensive data base has proved to
be exceptionally reproducible, reliable and informative.
Design, data and
implications of the FCI have been thoroughly discussed in published
articles, which should be consulted by anyone interested in using the
FCI. Here is a short list of primary references:
D. Hestenes, Guest
comment: Who needs physics education research!?, Am. J. Phys.
66: 465-467 (1998).
D. Hestenes, M. Wells, and G. Swackhamer, Force Concept
Inventory, The Physics Teacher 30: 141-158 (1992).
An up-to-date account of Richard Hake’s analysis of
extensive FCI/MBT data and its implications is available on his
Check out his two invited talks:
1. R.R. Hake, "What Can We Learn from the Physics Education Reform
Effort?", ASME Mechanical Engineering Education Conference: "Drivers
and Strategies of Major Program Change," Fort Lauderdale, Florida,
March 26-29, 2000.
2. R.R. Hake, "Towards Paradigm Peace in Physics-Education Research,"
presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research
Association, New Orleans, April 24-28, 2000.
Some Conclusions from FCI data
Students who understand Newtonian physics always get high FCI scores
Students who have not studied physics get low FCI scores (< 30%).
Under traditional instruction FCI gains are
small and bounded (< 30%); this result is independent of the
instructor’s qualifications and mode of instruction.
Under PER–based instruction FCI gains average 48%
and some exceed 70%. (Following Hake, gains are expressed as % of the
maximum possible gain.)
· FCI scores
correlate strongly with problem solving performance and
other measures of student understanding.
Students with FCI scores
below 60% do not have sufficient mastery of Newtonian concepts to use
them reliably in problem solving or scientific reasoning.
Consequently, they systematically misunderstand most of what they hear
and read about physics; they have no alternative to rote methods in
studying for examinations, and they suffer frustration and humiliation
from not understanding what they are doing wrong. At the university
level, this applies to about half the students completing physics
under traditional instruction.
The upshot is that that the FCI has
generated powerful evidence in support of physics teaching reform. A
case in point is the modeling approach to physics teaching described
II. Reform of Introductory
Research (PER) is stimulating and guiding reforms in many physics
departments. Here we consider one of the most radical reform movements
and its rationale as it is evolving at Arizona State University
A. A wake-up call
Quite apart from any
PER-based reforms of physics courses, the traditional lecture-based
physics course is sure to be replaced by courses delivered over the
Internet courses will
be cheaper, more convenient and certainly no less effective. They can
be designed and delivered by outstanding professors and enhanced by
multimedia affordances comparable to resources of the entertainment
industry. Internet education is projected to be a billion-dollar
industry within the next decade. With a potential world-wide audience,
costs for design and production of a single course may approach a
To compete with this trend, universities must supply what the Internet
cannot deliver. They must develop courses for which physical
presence of the student is essential. The courses must be designed
to take full advantage of
Hands-on access to materials and equipment (labs),
Heads-on personal interactions with faculty and other
On returning from the
meeting of physics chairs, I learned that the same message had
recently been delivered to chairs of mechanical engineering by MIT
Professor Woodie Flowers, only in more apocalyptic terms with
many specifics. His argument is forcefully illustrated by the fact
that his entire talk is available online at:
In case you are not up
to speed on the Internet, to view his talk in lively telepresence you
need to download Real Player 7 Basic, free from <http://www.real.com/player>.
Then just follow the wizards.
Flowers’ talk sent a
shockwave through the audience. He predicts that the Internet monster
will be heartily gobbling up courses within 5 years. Will your
department be ready to fight?
B. Studio Physics
The term was coined by
RPI physicist Jack Wilson for a computer-based alternative to
traditional physics instruction. Studio physics is popular within the
PER community as an optimal environment for enhancing student
learning. It is characterized by the following
place in a dedicated room (the ‘studio’) in which students sit at
tables, rather than desks. Each table has one computer for every two
or three students and space to do experiments.
Has little or no formal lecture.
Emphasizes active learning through a wide variety of
short experiments (often computer-based), pencil-and paper exercises
and discussion questions.
Emphasizes small group learning.
Uses materials and methods derived from PER.
Before the name was
coined, studio physics was pioneered by Malcolm Wells for (small) high
school classrooms and by Priscilla Laws for (small) college
classrooms. Jack Wilson introduced the first scale-up to large
classrooms at RPI. Further development and use is increasing, for
example, at NCSU, Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) and ASU.
Objectives of Studio Physics:
Integrate lab and theory
Optimize student engagement:
Adaptation to student knowledge state,
Shift locus of control from teacher to students
Optimize integration of technology into the physics
The studio classroom is an ideal arena for experiments on improving
instruction. Consequently, there is great variety in the way that
studio courses are conducted, and many new developments are likely.
Extensive experience in the Modeling Program at ASU suggests that the
optimal size for a studio physics class is 24 or less, though up to 32
can be accommodated. Scale-up to larger classes requires a room design
that permits partitioning into smaller collaborative groups. This is
being tried out at NCSU and ASU as well as RPI. It is by no means
clear that such scale-up is advantageous. It may be that, after the
current obsession with large classes is destroyed by competition with
the Internet, small classes will be recognized as essential for
effective physics instruction. But scale-ups must be tried and
objectively evaluated to see if they have real advantages.
The SCALE-UP of studio physics at NCSU is well described on their PER
C. Modeling R&D
For the last five years, the Modeling Research Group at ASU has been
experimenting with reform of University Physics in a studio physics
classroom. The most unique feature of this reform is its grounding in
a Modeling Theory of Physics Instruction developed at ASU over
the last two decades. With the overall objective of increasing the
coherence of student understanding, the reform has developed along
three main lines:
Course content organized around models rather than
Systematic use of modeling tools to elucidate the
Student activities and discourse structured around
models and modeling.
These points are elaborated below.
Central thesis (applies to science generally):
Scientists explore the physical world for
reproducible patterns which they represent by models and
organize into theories according to laws.
The content core of science is composed of
models, laws and theories
The procedural core
of science concerns making and using models = modeling
Explicate, analyze and
classify models inherent in all branches of physics
Analyze theories as
systems of laws (guidelines) for constructing models
Study the use of
representational tools in physics to ascertain optimal designs for
Explicate and analyze
cognitive aspects of modeling in science
References: Ref.  discusses scientific and cognitive
foundations for Modeling Theory. Refs.  and  describe designs
and devices for implementing the theory that have been extensively
applied to high school physics with well-documented success. We have
applied the same ideas to University Physics, but with some
modifications and improvements.
 D. Hestenes, Modeling Games in the Newtonian World, Am. J.
Phys. 60: 732-748 (1992).
 D. Hestenes (1997), Modeling Methodology for Physics Teachers. In
E. Redish & J. Rigden (Eds.) The changing role of the physics
department in modern universities, American Institute of Physics
Part II. p. 935-957.
 M. Wells, D. Hestenes, and G. Swackhamer, A Modeling Method for
High School Physics Instruction, Am. J. Phys. 63:
1. Structure and
coherence of the curriculum
Local structure is determined by delineating
Models are primary units of coherently structured knowledge.
Coherence derives primarily from the coordinated application of
physical laws to the construction and analysis of models.
induces students to organize their learning around problems and their
solutions as units of knowledge.
is organized around a small number of basic models. Problem solving is
subsidiary to modeling. One model solves many problems.
Large scale structure is determined by thematic
use of physical laws threaded through the curriculum. Two major
(a) Energy thread (or strand).
modified to generalize and separate energy conservation from momentum
conservation: Thorough preparation for
Concept of electric
Energy level diagrams &
(b) Structure of matter:
particle models and
Coordinated use of
complex numbers and vectors for trigonometry, rotations and
of vectors in modeling 2-d
motion saves time and combats “vector avoidance”
Management of student activities and discourse
(See Ref. )
learning (no lectures)
Students work in teams
Guided inquiry: Many
activities organized into a modeling cycle
("learning cycle" with
Developing skills in
Discourse structured around models to
make scientific claims, explanations and arguments clear and precise.
1/3 of class time
devoted to student presentations and discussion
for educational research are built into discourse management. Engage
– Eliciting and evaluating
their own beliefs about physics
– Negotiating meanings of terms
Evaluation. Course development began
with an Honors section of university physics, because that guaranteed
the class size needed for studio physics. Progress was monitored by %
FCI gains, which for successive years were: 40%, 56%, 64%, 68%, 56%.
During the last two years the method was applied to a community
college class with gains of 82% and 64%. The former is the first
recorded FCI gain over 72%. Evaluation with several other instruments
gave equally impressive results. This convinced NSF reviewers that the
course is ready for export to other schools, and we were awarded a
grant to do just that.