Casey Murphy MST: Interaction and MPEX analysis of group learning behaviors

Casey Murphy
Answer-Seeking and Idea-Constructing During Collaborative Active-Learning Activities in a Physics Laboratory
Unpublished MST thesis, University of Maine, 2010

Students’ understanding of the nature of scientific knowledge and their sense of self-efficacy in the construction of scientific ideas impacts their approach to learning in a physics laboratory (Hammer, 1995). This research uses video analysis to explore two polar examples of group epistemological approach within the same laboratory. One group seemed to approach the activities with the goal of answer-seeking, often at the expense of meaningful learning, while the other group seemed to actively engage in idea- construction as they worked through the instructional sequence. Using methods of Interaction Analysis (Jordan & Henderson, 1995), I describe very different behavioral patterns for each group across three spheres of interaction - student interactions with group members, student interactions with space and time, and student interaction with authority. These results suggest that it is possible to assess students’ approaches to a laboratory by being attentive to what students say and do as they interact with group members, with the space around them and with authority. The emergent patterns could provide the basis of a teacher toolbox for gauging, whether or not student approach is matched to the intended epistemological goals of the course.

In addition to looking at the details of behavior in the classroom, I explored shifts in epistemological approach to physics learning from the beginning of the course to the end of the course with the Maryland Physics Expectation Survey (MPEX2) (McCaskey, 2009). Consistent with previous semesters, whole course results indicated no shift towards favorability in personal or epistemological independence between pre- and post- tests. I also analyzed student survey responses at the beginning of the semester for the entire class, and, more importantly, for the Answer-Seeking Group and the Idea- Constructing Group. I observed a mismatch between behavior observed in class and student response on the MPEX2 questions measuring the extent students see knowledge as constructed or absorbed (independence-epistemology). On the other hand, I observed a match between group behaviors and the questions probing self-efficacy in knowledge construction. These results challenge earlier studies indicating low validity for MPEX2 use as an individual or small-N diagnostic (McCaskey, 2009) and also confirm analysis of the MPEX2 Independence cluster at the sub-category level of independence–personal and independence-epistemology.


Smith, Thompson, and Mountcastle on the Boltzmann Factor

Trevor I. Smith, John R. Thompson, and Donald B. Mountcastle

Addressing Student Difficulties with Statistical Mechanics: The Boltzmann Factor

AIP Conf. Proc. -- October 24, 2010 -- Volume 1289, pp. 305-308

As part of research into student understanding of topics related to thermodynamics and statistical mechanics at the upper division, we have identified student difficulties in applying concepts related to the Boltzmann factor and the canonical partition function. With this in mind, we have developed a guided-inquiry worksheet activity (tutorial) designed to help students develop a better understanding of where the Boltzmann factor comes from and why it is useful. The tutorial guides students through the derivation of both the Boltzmann factor and the canonical partition function. Preliminary results suggest that students who participated in the tutorial had a higher success rate on assessment items than students who had only received lecture instruction on the topic. We present results that motivate the need for this tutorial, the outline of the derivation used, and results from implementations of the tutorial. ©2010 American Institute of Physics

Hawkins et al. on vector addition

Jeffrey M. Hawkins, John R. Thompson, Michael C. Wittmann, Eleanor C. Sayre, and Brian W. Frank

AIP Conf. Proc. -- October 24, 2010 -- Volume 1289, pp. 165-168

We investigate if the visual representation of vectors can affect which methods students use to add them. We gave students one of four questions with different graphical representations, asking students to add the same two vectors. For students in an algebra-based class the arrangement of the vectors had a statistically significant effect on the vector addition method chosen while the addition or removal of a grid did not. ©2010 American Institute of Physics


Springuel Ph.D.: Cluster analysis in kinematics and the FMCE

R. Padraic Springuel
Applying Cluster Analysis to Physics Education Research Data
Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maine, 2010


Black Ph.D.: Air resistance problems, resources, and epistemic games

Katrina E. Black

Multiple Perspectives on Student Solution Methods for Air Resistance Problems

Physics education researchers use many frameworks to observe and analyze student understanding in physics - each is useful for understanding and explaining particular student behaviors. In this dissertation, I focus on two: difficulties and knowledge in pieces. In the difficulties paradigm, researchers focus on identifying specific topics or questions that pose challenges to students without making claims regarding underlying cognition. In the pieces paradigm, the focus is on describing the structure of student ideas, which are often found to be developed on-the-fly, easy to change, and can be described as made up of chunks of knowledge that are not inherently correct or incorrect. I use both video and written data collection methods and the difficulties and pieces theoretical frameworks to examine aspects of students' solutions to first-order separable differential equations in an air-resistance context. I uncover several difficulties students have when applying boundary conditions, and develop a new graphic, the consistency plot, that allows researchers to track individual student responses over time. Additionally, using air resistance as a context, I expand upon resources, a model of student thinking that falls into the pieces paradigm. I both expand the resources model directly and make connections between it and other modes of analysis present but less common in physics education research: epistemic games, gesture analysis, conceptual blending, and Process/Object theory. Introducing procedural resources as a type of resource allows the resources model to better describe students' problem-solving activities. I give several examples of procedural resources used in the incorporation of boundary conditions, and I show how procedural resources can be organized into facets of epistemic games. I also examine the creation of procedural resources. Drawing from the traditions of gesture analysis, conceptual blending, and Process/Object theory, I consider the internal structure of two procedural resources, Group and Move, and give a plausible path for the creation of the resource Separate Variables.

Black, Katrina E., "Multiple Perspectives on Student Solution Methods for Air Resistance Problems" (2010). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 1091.



Frank on the stability of students' thinking

Brian W. Frank

Multiple Conceptual Coherences in the Speed Tutorial: Micro-processes of Local Stability
Proceedings of the 9th International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS 2010) - Volume 1, Full Papers, pp.873-881
Published on line at arXiv:1008.3258v1

Researchers working within knowledge-in-pieces traditions have often employed observational approaches to investigate micro-processes of learning. There is growing evidence from this line of work that students' intuitive thinking about physical phenomena is characterized more so by its diversity and flexibility than its uniformity and robustness. This characterization implies that much of the dynamics of students' thinking over short timescales involve processes that stabilize local patterns of thinking, later destabilize them, and allow other patterns to form. This kind of "change" may only involve dynamics by which the system of intuitive knowledge settles into various states without changing the system structure itself. I describe a case study in which a group of college students shift their thinking about motion several times during a collaborative learning activity. Instead of focusing on micro-processes of change, I describe these dynamics in terms of mechanisms that contribute to local stability of students' conceptual coherences.


Wittmann on conceptual blending in wave propagation

Michael C. Wittmann
Using conceptual blending to describe emergent meaning in wave propagation
Proceedings of the 2010 International Conference on the Learning Sciences

Students in interviews on a wave physics topic give answers through embodied actions which connect their understanding of the physics to other common experiences. When answering a question about wavepulses propagating along a long taut spring, students' gestures help them recruit information about balls thrown the air. I analyze gestural, perceptual, and verbal information gathered using videotaped interviews and classroom interactions. I use conceptual blending to describe how different elements combine to create new, emergent meaning for the students and compare this to a knowledge-in-pieces approach.


Hayes and Wittmann on the use of signs

K. Hayes and M. C. Wittmann
The Role of Sign in Students' Modeling of Scalar Equations
The Physics Teacher 48, 246 (2010)

Helping students set up equations is one of the major goals of teaching a course in physics that contains elements of problem solving. Students must take the stories we present, interpret them, and turn them into physics; from there, they must turn that physical, idealized story into mathematics. How they do so and what problems lie along the way are a major source of difficulty for us as instructors. In this paper, we consider just one such difficulty, getting the plus and minus signs correct when setting a net force equal to mass times acceleration. Even in such simple equations, we find that students make common errors in how they connect the mathematics and the physics. Specifically, we have seen college physics students use physical and mathematical reasoning inconsistently when determining signs of terms in equations. The problem seems to lie in how a vector equation gets interpreted into a scalar equation (whose form depends on one's choice of coordinate system).