An Introduction to Physics Education Research
Robert Beichner North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC
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 traditionswithin 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, I say, is an art, and not a science.” Floyd K. Richtmyer’s statement, appearing in the very first article in the premier issue of the American Journal of Physics, accuratelyrepresented the prevailing mindset in 1933, as well as a common belief today. Richtmyer further states, ”Probably everyone would agree with this statement and perhaps it is therefore unnecessary to make it, except as a starting point for the discussion.”1 Part of what Richtmyer said is absolutely correct…the statement is an excellent starting point for a discussion! In all fairness, when he wrote hisarticle there was not a large research base dealing with the teaching and learning of physics. The collection in which this article appears, and indeed decades of education research literature, attests to the fact that a different situation exists today. Of course, people have long been concerned about education. In 1893 J. M. Rice reported2 on a children’s lesson in geometric shapes where studentafter student stood and recited the name of a shape and its characteristics. He noted, “In no single exercise is a child permitted to think. He is told just what to say, and he is drilled not only in what to say, but also in the manner in which he must say it” (pg. 38). This is reminiscent of Richard Feynman’s visit to a Brazilian school, where he describes3 a strikingly similar situation.Numerous reports like A Nation at Risk4 or the more recent Rising Above the Gathering Storm5 attest that we are a long way from providing the best possible education to our nation’s citizens. Nonetheless, we are making progress toward approaching education in a scholarly manner. Len Jossem, who has supported PER for decades, notes that “…Research in Physics Education did not spring, like Athena, thegoddess of wisdom, full grown from the head of Zeus. Its successes grew out of the work of previous generations, the development of instructional media including video and computer related applications and materials, the recognition of the importance to physics education research, as to physics itself, of a balance between theory and experiment, and, in my view, the very important development ofeffective quantitative measurement instruments. [italics in original]”6 Major strides are being made. Instructional reforms are being instituted that attest to the fact that scientific tools and methods can and should be used to improve teaching and learning. Implementation of research-based reforms has resulted in significant learning gains, plummeting failure rates, and more success in later courses.(For just one example—that
happens to be very familiar to me—review the outcomes of the SCALEUP project.7 Further findings will be discussed throughout this collection.) Since Richtmyer' time, the Physics Education Research (PER) s community has flourished, attesting to a very different situation today: while some may yet agree with Richtmyer, the tide is indeed turning.
1. Who are PhysicsEducation Researchers?
Physics Education Research has become recognized as a legitimate research subfield of physics only recently. Not too long ago, one could easily pick out physics faculty who did not conduct research. You would just open Barron’s or Peterson’s phonebook-like guide to graduate programs, turn to your favorite department’s page, and see who was listed as “Physics Education.”...
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