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Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Investigating and Improving Student Learning Through Physics Education Research

Professor David E. Meltzer

Department of Physics and Astronomy, Iowa State University

Physics Education Research comprises systematic investigation of the physics-learning process, as well as application of findings to improve the effectiveness of physics instruction. Probes of student understanding lay the basis for development of curricular materials that help students address and resolve common learning difficulties. For example, our investigation of student learning of thermal physics has identified persistent confusion related to process-dependent quantities such as heat and work, and a strong belief that net heat absorbed and net work done by a system undergoing a cyclic process must be zero. A concurrent project has identified specific learning difficulties related to the mode in which physics concepts are represented (e.g., diagrammatic, mathematical, or graphical). Curricular materials designed to address learning difficulties uncovered through our research are being developed and tested. A particular emphasis of our work has been development of materials appropriate for fully interactive lectures in large-enrollment classes, designed to engage students more actively in the learning process. Efforts to assess the effectiveness of instructional innovations raise general issues regarding measurement of learning gain, carrying implications for undergraduate education that transcend departments of physics.

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