What is physics education research? And why should we care?

Image: Shutterstock/Chinnapong
Image: Shutterstock/Chinnapong

Physics education research (PER) – discipline-based research into the teaching and learning of physics in higher education – is still regarded by many as a relatively young field.

However, it has deep and well-established roots, having emerged as a recognisable (and recognised) discipline in the 1970s in the US. One of the initial drivers was an increasing awareness that the physics that was being taught and what students were actually learning were often very different things.

Much of the early work focused on curriculum development and instructional design, especially in large introductory classes. While this is still an important aspect of PER, the field has grown to encompass a wide range of basic as well as applied research.

For example, researchers new to the field can now consult guides on topics ranging from conceptual understanding, through problem-solving and knowledge constructs, through to the use of quantitative and qualitative methods. But at its core, PER aims to understand how students learn physics and how to help students think like a physicist. This is why PER is carried out by physicists, and why it is a physics-based discipline, albeit with links to both other discipline-based education research and to education research more generally.

In the UK there is an increasing interest in PER. Only a few years ago, it could largely be characterised as a cottage industry, the preserve of certain enthusiastic people as an optional extra on top of their day job – often with little institutional support.

But times are changing: PER groups have now been established in a number of UK universities, and there is more widespread recognition of the role that it can play in improving the quality of undergraduate physics education. Support through the IOP has been an important driver for this change. And as mentioned by Alison Voice in the first blogpost of this series, the upcoming TEF may also have focused institutional thinking.

Unfortunately, the increased interest in PER has not been matched by increased funding. In fact, the funding situation has worsened significantly over recent years, and there are now virtually no national sources of funding for PER or for discipline-based research more generally.

Much PER in the UK is funded by institutional grants, but these tend to be small, short-term and focused on specific teaching developments. This makes it very difficult to build a sustainable long-term research programme, or to recruit PhD students. The UK funding situation is in sharp contrast to that in the US, where the National Science Foundation in particular has played a pivotal role in funding PER, and where PhD studentships are much more readily available. Even a small amount of funding from a UK national body would also help validate PER and promote its acceptance among the wider physics community.

PER has proven benefits and much to offer. For teaching staff, it provides a multitude of tried and tested approaches backed up by research evidence. The research is clear that PER-informed teaching can result in improved student learning. (This need not involve wholescale changes to the way a course is delivered – it’s possible to introduce an element of peer instruction without converting an entire lecture course to flipped classroom.) It also offers validated methods to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching interventions, such as through the use of conceptual diagnostic testing.

For physics and astronomy departments, support for PER offers a way of demonstrating their commitment to teaching excellence and to evidence-based teaching enhancement. For students, PER ultimately offers a route to a deeper understanding of physics and to the development of the advanced problem-solving, critical analysis, and mathematical and investigative skills associated with the discipline.

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Judy Hardy

Judy Hardy

Judy Hardy is professor of physics education and director of teaching in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh.

Judy leads the School's Physics Education Research Group (EdPER) and has published widely in this area. Her research interests include the evaluation of instructional techniques designed to increase student engagement and understanding, technology-based educational enhancements and strategies for embedding evidence-based teaching reforms.
Judy Hardy

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