How does a physicist think?

By Marcus Wilson 18/02/2010

As part of my reading for the Postgraduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching (henceforth known as the PGCert(TT) )  I’ve come across this article by Gire et al. on how physics students think.   The study looked at how closely the physics-thought-processes of undergraduate and graduate students aligned with the physics-thought-processes of practising physicists.    In other words, do students studying physics think like physicists?

To do this the authors studied students taking physics at university (be they physics majors or doing physics as part of another programme, e.g. engineering students),  and asked them a set of agree/disagree questions that exposed how they thought. For example: "When I solve a physics problem, I locate an equation that uses the variables given in the problem and plug in the values"; "In physics, it is important to make sense out of formulas before I can use them correctly"; and ‘There are times I solve a physics problem more than one way to help my understanding".   I would answer these questions: disagree; agree; agree; in that order.

Now, there are a couple of interesting findings from this work. First of all, students who enter first year wanting to major in physics enter the classroom substantially more expert in their thinking than those wanting to study engineering. Perhaps that’s not surprising – those who think like a physicist want to study physics. Secondly, students maintain this level of expertise through 2nd and 3rd year (show no improvement or loss), but improvements are significant once students reach 4th year (in this study the physics degree in question was done over four years) and there are further improvements for graduate students. 

 This prompts some questions – are the first three years in this degree doing very much for the students, and are there problems with the way physics is taught to engineering students?  These have significance for the way I teach – my second-year solid state physics class after Easter will mostly contain engineering students, not physicists, but they are being taught by a physicist (me). Should I change the way I teach to account for this? And how?

Gire, E., Jones, B. and Price, E. (2009) Characterizing the epistemological development of physics majors. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research 5, 010103. 

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