University of Pittsburgh

Physics Education Research


Emphasis Areas:
• Cognitive issues in learning physics
• Development and evaluation of research-based curricula  for introductory and advanced physics courses

One major goal of physics education research activities in the department is to investigate the sources of student difficulties in learning physics, both at introductory and advanced levels, and to design, implement, and assess the effectiveness of curricular and/or pedagogical changes to reduce such difficulties.

Russell Clark has focused on increasing the effectiveness of the undergraduate teaching laboratories. Because many of the nonmajors who take the introductory undergraduate laboratory courses are planning to pursue degrees in medicine, health-related professions, and biology, he has created physics experiments specifically geared for such students. For instance, in the electrical circuit experiments, students learn how an EKG is able to measure the voltage change across the heart. More recently, he has been exploring ways to use a peer review system in the introductory laboratory courses to improve the scientific writing skills of the students: A student submits her or his lab report to an online system, which randomly assigns the report to another student in the class, who must review it. This process is very similar to the evaluation process used by peer-reviewed journals, which, in itself, is a valuable teaching lesson. In addition, Clark wishes to study whether the peer review aspect improves the overall quality of the writing.

Peter Koehler and his graduate student have been investigating ways to improve the effectiveness of graduate student teaching assistants in leading recitation sessions in introductory physics courses. Their studies show that the difficulty encountered by teaching assistants is not an inability on their part to solve introductory physics problems; instead, they are hampered by their inexperience in recognizing the misconceptions that the undergraduates have about basic physics and their inability to help the students correct their misconceptions and overcome their problem-solving difficulties. The findings highlight the distinction between “content specialists” and “teachers of content.” This does not come as a surprise, because most teaching assistants are given classroom assignments without any prior teaching experience or training. As a result of this study, a number of training modules have been developed to help new teaching assistants develop needed teaching skills, which include the introduction of relevant analogies, suitable diagrams, and simple experimental demonstrations. The effectiveness of the training modules is being studied with before-and-after surveys, classroom observations, and individual interviews.

For more than a decade, Chandralekha Singh and her students have designed surveys and conducted individual interviews to investigate the difficulties that advanced undergraduate students have experienced in learning quantum physics. Their findings indicate that the difficulties and misconceptions displayed by advanced students taking quantum mechanics are largely independent of the students’ backgrounds; the instructors’ teaching styles; and the textbook. (These results are similar to those documented for students taking introductory physics courses.) Singh is currently leading an effort to develop and evaluate Quantum Interactive Learning Tutorials and tools for peer instruction in quantum mechanics. Her group also is exploring cognitive issues involved in learning physics and strategies to help students become better problem solvers and independent learners. For example, her group wants to understand how physical intuition develops and how the problem-solving strategies of individuals at different levels of expertise in physics show similarities and differences when physical intuition fails.

The physics education research group also investigates innovations that could benefit the department’s teaching mission. In addition to the projects mentioned above, some recent examples are the establishment of a Physics Exploration Center, where students in the introductory courses can experiment on their own; the installation of “clicker” systems in all four of the department’s larger lecture halls, which enables the instructors to obtain students’ responses to questions posed during lectures; and the construction of an introductory course classroom that is specially designed to facilitate studio-style interactive teaching (as opposed to lecturing).


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Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Pittsburgh
100 Allen Hall
3941 O'Hara St
Pittsburgh PA 15260
O: (412) 624-9000 | F: (412) 624-9163

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