Pedagogy (How course design supports student learning)

Physics by Inquiry is a set of laboratory-based modules that provide a step-by-step introduction to physics and the physical sciences. Physics by Inquiry is the product of more than 20 years' research and teaching experience. The modules have been developed and class-tested mainly in special courses to prepare precollege teachers to teach science as a process of inquiry and to help underprepared students succeed in the mainstream science courses that are a gateway to science-related careers.

As implemented by the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington, the process of using research to guide curriculum development has three parts: (1) conducting systematic investigations of students' understanding; (2) applying the results in the development of specific instructional strategies to address specific difficulties; and (3) designing, testing, modifying, and revising the materials in a continuous cycle on the basis of classroom experience with the target population. For those interested in specific subject matter examples of how research has guided the design of Physics by Inquiry, several journal articles describing the process in depth are available from the Physics Education Group.

Unlike most textbooks, the emphasis in Physics by Inquiry is not on the presentation of a large number of facts or a large number of topics. Instead, through in-depth study of a few basic topics, students gain direct experience with the process of science. Starting from their own observations, they develop physical concepts, use and interpret different forms of scientific representations, and practice relating the concepts and representations to actual phenomena in the real world. The experiments, exercises, and problems in Physics by Inquiry help develop reasoning skills that are critical in scientific work.

For example, in the introductory module, "Properties of Matter," the first part of the module focuses on making measurements in the laboratory that can be used as a basis to construct the scientific concepts of mass and volume. Both the process used to make the measurements and the numbers obtained from this process are important in establishing an unambiguous meaning for these terms. Students begin by using a simple balance they have assembled to make measurements of several objects that are provided to them. They must first define balance. After several experiments, they have compiled a list of things that affect balancing and a list of things that do not. The students are given time to reflect on what things might influence the outcome of their experiments. Only after they have had this experience is the reasoning that they have used labeled "control of variables." (Physics by Inquiry, Volume 1, page 8). Thus, they have developed the concept of "control of variables" before it is named. The concept of mass is subsequently developed through experiments in which students measure the mass of common objects using an equal-arm balance. Students learn to define mass not in an abstract way-as the measure of an object's resistance to motion-or in a descriptive way-as the quantity of matter in a body-but operationally, as the number resulting from a measurement using an equal-arm balance and a set of standard weights. At this point in their work, they will also have begun to learn about uncertainty in measurements and how to construct an operational definition. Once they have mastered an operational understanding of the concept of mass, they move on to develop the concept of volume in similar fashion.

Related bibliography

Goldberg, F.M., & McDermott, L.C. (1986). Student difficulties in understanding image formation by a plane mirror. The Phys. Teach., 24, 472.

Goldberg, F.M., & McDermott, L.C. (1987). An investigation of student understanding of the real image formed by a converging lens or concave mirror. Am. J. Phys., 55 (2), 108.

Lawson, R.A., & McDermott, L.C. (1987). Student understanding of the work-energy and impulse-momentum theorems. Am. J. Phys., 55 (9), 811.

McDermott, L.C. (1974). Combined physics course for future elementary and secondary school teachers. Am. J. Phys., 42, 668.

McDermott, L.C., (1974). Practice-teaching program in physics for future elementary school teachers. Am. J. Phys., 42, 737.

McDermott, L.C. (1975). Improving high school physics teacher preparation. Phys. Teach., 13, 523.

McDermott, L.C. (1990). A perspective on teacher preparation in physics and other sciences: The need for special courses for teachers. Am. J. Phys., 58 (8), 734.

McDermott, L.C. (1990). Research and computer-based instruction: Opportunity for interaction. Am. J. Phys., 58 (S), 452.

McDermott, L.C. (1991).What we teach and what is learned: Closing the gap. Am. J. Phys., 59 (4) 301 (1991).

McDermott, L.C., Piternick, L., & Rosenquist, M. (1980). Helping minority students succeed in science: I. Development of a curriculum in physics and biology; II. Implementation of a curriculum in physics and biology; III. Requirements for the operation of an academic program in physics and biology. J. Coll. Sci. Teach., 9, 135, 201, 261.

McDermott, L.C., Rosenquist, M.L., & van Zee, E.H. (1983). Instructional strategies to improve the performance of minority students in the sciences. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 16, 59.

McDermott, L.C., Rosenquist, M.L., & van Zee, E. H. (1987). Student difficulties in connecting graphs and physics: Examples from kinematics. Am. J. Phys., 55 (6), 503.

McDermott, L.C., & Shaffer, P. (1992). Research as a guide for curriculum development: An example from introductory electricity, Part I: Investigation of student understanding. Am. J. Phys., 60 (11), 994; Erratum to Part I, Am. J. Phys., 61 (1), 81.

McDermott, L.C., Shaffer, P., & Somers, M. (1994). Research as a guide for curriculum development: An illustration in the context of the Atwood' s machine. Am. J. Phys., 62 (1), 46.

Rosenquist, M.L., & McDermott, L. (1987). A conceptual approach to teaching kinematics. Am. J. Phys., 55 (S), 407.

Shaffer, P., & McDermott, L. (1992). Research as a guide for curriculum development: An example from introductory electricity, Part II: Design of instructional strategies. Am. J. Phys., 60 (11), 1003.