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Physics Education Research Laboratory

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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.


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

2015 PERC Proceedings publications!

Wonderful news! PERL published 5 papers in the 2015 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings. You can find links to them here:

Van de Bogart, Dounas-Frazer, Lewandowski, and Stetzer on metacognition in troubleshooting

Dounas-Frazer, Van De Bogart, Stetzer, and Lewandowski on troubleshooting in electronics labs

Wittmann, Alvarado, and Millay on PD and teachers’ goals for teaching energy

Axthelm, Wittmann, Alvarado, and Millay on Idea Use Curves

Kranich, Wittmann, and Alvarado on teacher content knowledge affecting assessments

Four new papers posted

This summer, we had a strong presence at the national AAPT and PERC meetings held in Ann Arbor, MI. We contributed four papers to the PERC Proceedings, which are now available online. For more information, check out our blog of publications:

The papers are on: different ways of teaching Newton’s second law (Mindi Anderson, Michael Wittmann, Trevor Smith); resource creation when solving differential equations in mechanics (Katrina Black, Michael Wittmann); vector addition (Jeff Hawkins, John Thompson, Michael Wittmann); and curriculum development on heat engines and the Carnot cycle (Trevor Smith, Warren Christensen, John Thompson).




Contact Information

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