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Michael, Carolina, and Laura publish in LAJPE on teacher knowledge of energy

Teacher awareness of problematic facets of meaningful metaphors of energy
Michael C. Wittmann, Carolina Alvarado, Laura Millay

Latin American Journal of Physics Education 11, 2327 (2017).

English Abstract

How teachers respond to students depends, in part, on what they see in their students’ thinking. In a teacher professional development setting, we asked teachers to provide possible incorrect responses and explanations that students might give when discussing the gravitational potential energy of identical hikers walking to the summit of a mountain along different paths, from the same starting point. Teachers were aware of the common difficulties that students might have, including (1) energy is “used up” because of travel time, travel distance, or the effort exerted during travel (2) double-counting work and energy, and (3) energy being an intrinsic property of the hiker. Several of these difficulties use the metaphor of energy as a substance-like quantity, but teachers never made explicit that they were aware of the value of this metaphor in thinking about energy. We discuss the need for teachers to respond to multiple grain sizes of student thinking, including the metaphors they use and the different and at times problematic facets of each.

Keywords: Teacher training, Alternative conceptions, Gravity.

Resumen Espanol

La manera en que los maestros responden a los alumnos depende, en parte, de lo que ven en el pensamiento de los estudiantes. En un curso de capacitación, le pedimos a maestros que proporcionaran la posible respuesta incorrecta y la explicación de qué explicaciones podrían dar al analizar la energía gravitacional potencial de unos excursionistas idénticos caminando hacia la cumbre de una montaña por diferentes veredas, iniciando desde el mismo punto. Los maestros reconocían las dificultades comunes que los estudiantes podrían tener, incluyendo (1) la energía es “usada” en el tiempo viajado, distancia recorrida, o el esfuerzo requerido durante el viaje, (2) contar doblemente el trabajo y la energía, y (3) considerar la energía como una propiedad intrínseca del excursionista. Muchas de esas dificultades utilizan la metáfora de la energía como una cantidad del tipo sustancia, pero los maestros nunca hicieron explícito que ellos estaban al tanto del valor de dicha metáfora la pensar en energía. Discutimos la necesidad de los maestros a responder a las múltiples maneras de pensar de los estudiantes, incluyendo metáforas que usan así como las facetas que pueden ser problemáticas en ocasiones..

Palabras clave: Capacitación de maestros, Concepciones alternativas, Gravedad.

Link to journal:
Link to article:

Glen and Michael publish in Phys Rev on cultural studies using the FMCE

Comparing Item Response Curves of Japanese and American Students on the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation
M. Ishimoto, G. Davenport, and M. C. Wittmann

Physical Review Physics Education Research 13, 20135 (published Nov 30, 2017)

Student views of force and motion reflect the personal experiences and physics education of the student. With a different language, culture, and educational system, we expect that Japanese students’ views on force and motion might be different from those of American students. The Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE) is an instrument used to probe student views on force and motion. It was designed using research on American students, and, as such, the items might function differently for Japanese students. Preliminary results from a translated version indicated that Japanese students had similar misconceptions as those of American students. In this study, we used item response curves (IRCs) to make more detailed item-by-item comparisons. IRCs show the functioning of individual items across all levels of performance by plotting the proportion of each response as a function of the total score. Most of the IRCs showed very similar patterns on both correct and incorrect responses; however, a few of the plots indicate differences between the populations. The similar patterns indicate that students tend to interact with FMCE items similarly, despite differences in culture, language, and education. We speculate about the possible causes for the differences in some of the IRCs. This report is intended to show how IRCs can be used as a part of the validation process when making comparisons across languages and nationalities. Differences in IRCs can help to pinpoint artifacts of translation, contextual effects because of differences in culture, and perhaps intrinsic differences in student understanding of Newtonian motion.


Kevin and Mac publish in Phys Rev on troubleshooting

Kevin is lead author on work with folks at Colorado, regarding troubleshooting in labs.

Investigating the role of socially mediated metacognition during collaborative troubleshooting of electric circuits
Kevin L. Van De Bogart, Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer, H. J. Lewandowski, and MacKenzie R. Stetzer

Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 13, 020116 – Published 12 September 2017

Developing students’ ability to troubleshoot is an important learning outcome for many undergraduate physics lab courses, especially electronics courses. In other work, metacognition has been identified as an important feature of troubleshooting. However, that work has focused primarily on individual students’ metacognitive processes or troubleshooting abilities. In contrast, electronics courses often require students to work in pairs, and hence students’ in-class experiences likely have significant social dimensions that are not well understood. In this work, we use an existing framework for socially mediated metacognition to analyze audiovisual data from think-aloud activities in which eight pairs of students from two institutions attempted to diagnose and repair a malfunctioning electric circuit. In doing so, we provide insight into some of the social metacognitive dynamics that arise during collaborative troubleshooting. We find that students engaged in socially mediated metacognition at multiple key transitions during the troubleshooting process. Reciprocated metacognitive dialogue arose when students were collectively strategizing about which measurements to perform, or reaching a shared understanding of the circuit’s behavior. Our research demonstrates the value of the framework of socially mediated metacognition in providing insight into the nature of collaborative student troubleshooting in the context of electronics. As such, this framework may be a useful resource for future efforts to examine and support the development of student troubleshooting skills in other upper-division laboratory courses.


Savvy Lodge-Scharff graduates with a Master of Science in Teaching

Congratulations, Savvy!

Investigating Student Mental Models at the Intersection of Mathematics and Physical Reasoning in Physics
Savannah E. Lodge-Scharff

Thesis for the Master’s of Science in Teaching (MST)

A significant challenge in learning science and mathematics is coordinating different types of mental models, such as mathematical and physical mental models, that represent different aspects of a given phenomenon. This challenge is illustrated in the present study, in which we observed a small number of college students reasoning about forces as both physical and mathematical quantities as they reasoned about a physical system. Using video analysis of the students’ gesture and as they reasoned qualitatively and mathematically about the system, we documented the construction and coordination of participants’ mental models. We found that participants constructed mathematical mental models as imagined lines uniquely to physical mental models as imagined pulls. Moreover, students rarely exhibited the coordination of these two mental models. These findings suggest that instructors that they cannot assume that students generate models, even circumstances designed to support them.

Recommended Citation
Lodge-Scharff, Savannah E., “Investigating Student Mental Models at the Intersection of Mathematics and Physical Reasoning in Physics” (2017). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2718.

Billy Ferm graduates with a Master of Science in Teaching

Congratulations, Billy!

Examining Student Ability to Follow and Interact with Qualitative Inferential Reasoning Chains
William N. Ferm (Billy)

Thesis for Master’s of Science in Teaching (MST)

The effectiveness of scaffolded, research-based instruction in physics has been extensively documented in the literature. However, even after such instruction, students who demonstrate a solid conceptual understanding on one physics task may subsequently perform poorly on another, closely related task requiring the application of that same conceptual understanding. Research on such inconsistencies has suggested that poor performance may primarily be attributed to difficulties related to reasoning rather than those of a conceptual nature. To gain insight into this phenomenon, further work is required, specifically focusing on the design and testing of tasks that may be used to document the extent to which students are able to follow, replicate, evaluate, and generate coherent chains of qualitative inferential reasoning before, during, and after scaffolded, research-based instruction.

In response to this need, we have designed and implemented tasks to assess the extent to which introductory physics students are able to logically follow and interact with the reasoning chains of hypothetical students in a variety of physics contexts. In this thesis, we describe several of these tasks, including a “Follow Reasoning” task in which students are asked to infer the conclusions that would be drawn from different lines of reasoning articulated by hypothetical students and to provide justification for those inferences. We also share work from an experiment in which students were first prompted to answer a physics question before completing a “Follow Reasoning” task, which itself contained reasoning associated with the same physics question (leading to either the correct or an incorrect answer). Finally, we describe the construction, implementation, and analysis of a pair of isomorphic “Follow Reasoning” tasks in which the same lines of reasoning are articulated by hypothetical students but the physics context in which the reasoning is presented is different.

Results show that the majority of students were able to predict the logical concluding statement when provided with a hypothetical student reasoning chain (HSRC), suggesting that they were in fact capable of following the reasoning of others. Several overall trends were identified, and they provided insight into how students interact with HSRCs. In addition, we found that students who demonstrated requisite conceptual understanding were better able to follow correct reasoning leading to the correct answer but showed no such enhancement when considering incorrect reasoning leading to a common incorrect answer. Finally, data collected from isomorphic “Follow Reasoning” tasks suggest that student ability to follow particular lines of reasoning may, in fact, be independent of physics context and content. Key findings from this work have numerous important implications for instruction.

Recommended Citation
Ferm, William N. Jr., “Examining Student Ability to Follow and Interact with Qualitative Inferential Reasoning Chains” (2017). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2662.

Barth-Cohen and Wittmann publish in Science Education

Lauren Barth-Cohen (post doc from 2013-2014) and Michael Wittmann have published a paper in Science Education. It shows how one can apply coordination class theory to the problem of students working in Energy Theater as they model the roughly constant temperature of the Earth, in 9th grade Earth Science classrooms. Click here for more.

PERC 2016 publications!!

This year, like last, we published 5 papers in the Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings for 2016. Click on the links below for more.

Alvarado Wittmann Rogers Millay on Teacher knowledge of coldness

Ferm Speirs Stetzer Lindsey on using reasoning chains

Schermerhorn and Thompson on symbolic forms and differential length elements

Speirs Ferm Stetzer Lindsey on reasoning chains

Wittmann Alvarado Millay on facets and metaphors of teacher knowledge of student ideas

Nissen and Shemwell publish in Phys Rev

As part of the Focused Collection on Gender in Physics, in Phys Rev PER, Jayson and Jon published a paper on “Gender, experience, and self-efficacy in introductory physics.” Click here for more.

ABSTRACT: There is growing evidence of persistent gender achievement gaps in university physics instruction, not only for learning physics content, but also for developing productive attitudes and beliefs about learning physics. These gaps occur in both traditional and interactive-engagement (IE) styles of physics instruction. We investigated one gender gap in the area of attitudes and beliefs. This was men’s and women’s physics self-efficacy, which comprises students’ thoughts and feelings about their capabilities to succeed as learners in physics. According to extant research using pre- and post-course surveys, the self-efficacy of both men and women tends to be reduced after taking traditional and IE physics courses. Moreover, self-efficacy is reduced further for women than for men. However, it remains unclear from these studies whether this gender difference is caused by physics instruction. It may be, for instance, that the greater reduction of women’s self-efficacy in physics merely reflects a broader trend in university education that has little to do with physics per se. We investigated this and other alternative causes, using an in-the-moment measurement technique called the Experience Sampling Method (ESM). We used ESM to collect multiple samples of university students’ feelings of self-efficacy during four types of activity for two one-week periods: (i) an introductory IE physics course, (ii) students’ other introductory STEM courses, (iii) their non-STEM courses, and (iv) their activities outside of school. We found that women experienced the IE physics course with lower self-efficacy than men, but for the other three activity types, women’s self-efficacy was not reliably different from men’s. We therefore concluded that the experience of physics instruction in the IE physics course depressed women’s self-efficacy. Using complementary measures showing the IE physics course to be similar to others in which gendered self-efficacy effects have been consistently observed, we further concluded that IE physics instruction in general is likely to be detrimental to women’s self-efficacy. Consequently, there is a clear need to redress this inequity in IE physics, and probably also in traditional instruction.

Kranich defends his MST – teacher assessment of accelerated motion

Greg Kranich completed his Master of Science in Teaching with Michael Wittmann – click on the link below to read the abstract and for a link to the full document:

Kranich MST

Greg is off to work in leading the STEM Ambassador program that is part of 4-H here on campus.

Almuni Trevor Smith submits paper on Model Analysis

Our alum, Trevor Smith, sent word that he’d submitted a paper on error analysis when using Lei Bao’s Model Analysis. You can get a pre-print version of the paper at

Physics Education Research Laboratory
Department of Physics and Astronomy, 5709 Bennett Hall
Phone: 207.581.1033; 207.581.1030; 207.581.1237
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469