Education research: student expectations in physics

E. F. Redish, J. M. Saul, and R. N. Steinberg (University of Maryland, College Park, MD) developed the Maryland Physics Expectations (MPEX) Survey in 1998 to quantify student attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions about physics using six question categories, rating responses as either favorable or unfavorable towards:
  1. Independence--beliefs about learning physics--whether it means receiving information or involves an active process of reconstructing one's own understanding;
  2. Coherence--beliefs about the structure of physics knowledge--as a collection of isolated pieces or as a single coherent system;
  3. Concepts--beliefs about the content of physics knowledge--as formulas or as concepts that underlie the formulas;
  4. Reality Link--beliefs about the connection between physics and reality--whether physics is unrelated to experiences outside the classroom or whether it is useful to think about them together;
  5. Math Link--beliefs about the role of mathematics in learning physics--whether the mathematical;
    formalism is used as a way of representing information about physical phenomena or mathematics is just used to calculate numbers;
  6. Effort--beliefs about the kind of activities and work necessary to make sense out of physics--whether they expect to think carefully and evaluate what they are doing based on available materials and feedback or not.
As a baseline, the MPEX was administered for calibration purposes by Redish, Saul, and Steinberg to teachers "committed to implementing an interactive engagement model of teaching in their classroom," and these results were taken to be the "expert" favorable versus unfavorable responses:
(N = 19)
Percentage of favorable:unfavorable responses
Overall Indep. Coher. Concept Real. Math Effort
87:6 93:3 85:12 89:6 93:3 92:4 85:4
The MPEX was also administered pre- and post-instruction by Redish, Saul, and Steinberg to students at an unidentified two-year college, in an introductory physics course where there is no adjunct laboratory during the first semester.
"Two-year college"
(Unidentified school, unknown course, N = 44)
Percentage of favorable:unfavorable responses
Overall Indep. Coher. Concept Real. Math Effort
Initial 55:22 41:29 50:21 30:42 69:16 58:17 80:8
Final 49:26 42:32 48:29 35:41 58:17 58:18 65:21
In comparision the MPEX was given to Physics 8A (university physics, calculus-based, mandatory adjunct laboratory) students at Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, CA, during the first week of the semester, and then on the last week of the semester. Care was taken to match pre- and post-instruction statistics, as per Redish, Saul, and Steinberg:
In order to eliminate the confounding factor of differential drop-out rates, we only include students who completed the survey both at the beginning and at the end of the term. We say that the data is matched [emphasis theirs].
Cuesta College
Physics 8A Spring 2007 sections 4909, 4910, 4911
(N = 26)
Percentage of favorable:unfavorable responses
Overall Indep. Coher. Concept Real. Math Effort
Initial 54:25 44:25 39:34 52:26 67:10 53:21 65:12
Final 44:31 33:26 45:28 36:37 57:13 41:29 45:35
The results between the unnamed two-year college and Cuesta College have four notable differences:
  • The unnamed two-year college and Cuesta College Physics 8A students had comparable favorable initial attitudes towards independence (i.e., "takes responsibility for constructing own understanding," versus "takes what is given by authorities (teacher, text) without evaluation"), but Cuesta College students have markedly lower final favorable attitudes in independence.
  • Cuesta College Physics 8A students had higher favorable initial attitudes towards concepts (i.e., "stresses understanding of the underlying ideas and concepts" as opposed to "focuses on memorizing and using formulas"), but these dropped down to levels comparable to the two-year college in the Redish, Saul, and Steinberg study.
  • While the unnamed two-year college and Cuesta College students had comparable favorable initial attitudes in regards to math link ("considers mathematics as a convenient way of representing physical phenomena" as opposed to "views the physics and the math as independent with little relationship between them"), Cuesta College Physics 8A students show a strong negative shift, towards lower favorable final math link attitudes by the end of the semester (while the two-year college student math link attitudes remain constant).
  • The fourth difference was the less favorable initial and final attitudes of Cuesta College Physics 8A students towards effort (i.e., "makes the effort to use information available and tries to make sense of it" versus "does not attempt to use available information effectively") compared to the sample two-year college (but both have comparable downwards shifts in effort).
These results are quite disheartening. However, the spin on this, apparently, is not just that there are negative shifts in attitudes, but that there are noticeable shifts at all for the first semester of an introductory physics course. The optimistic implication is that the impact of this course can eventually, hopefully be made to cause positive shifts, as Redish, Saul, and Steinberg discuss that:
"In all cases, the result of instruction on the overall [MPEX] survey was an increase in unfavorable responses and a decrease in favorable responses. Thus, instruction produced an average deterioration rather than an improvement of student expectations... The failure to begin to move students from a binary view of learning to a more constructivist set of attitudes in the first term of university physics is most unfortunate. The start of college is a striking change for most students. This change of context gives instructors the valuable opportunity to redefine the social contract between students and teachers. This redefinition offers an opportunity to change expectations... If students experience a series of science courses that do not require deeper understanding and a growth of sophistication, they will be much more reluctant to put in the time and effort to change in a later course."
Compilation of earlier semester data for Physics 8A and 8B students at Cuesta College, and data for subsequent semesters of Physics 5A (college physics, algebra-based) students at Cuesta College will be posted in the future.

E. F. Redish, J. M. Saul, and R. N. Steinberg, "Student Expectations in Introductory Physics," American Journal of Physics, 1998, 66(3).

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