learning in undergraduate physics includes 173 unique citations. These reports are not replicated or summarized here. Below, a very brief overview of PER sets the stage for a discussion of key findings and current priorities in six major areas of research. Taken together, these items constitute a research agenda that responds to pressing needs in undergraduate physics education and also encourages foundational research that may drive improvements in courses and programs in the future.
As a field of investigation, PER has grown significantly since the 1970s, a decade in which the first Ph.D. degrees in physics in the United States were awarded for research on learning and teaching of physics. Since that time, PER has produced results that provide a foundation for improving both the efficiency and the effectiveness of student learning. Perhaps the most important finding of the past four decades of PER is that a variety of specific teaching methods can lead to improved student understanding, compared to the frequently used lecture method.
The effectiveness of different teaching methods has often been established by measuring what students are able to do at different points in instruction; for example, giving students pretests and post-tests before and after a specific intervention or an entire course. The pretests and post-tests typically consist of questions that require students to apply what they have been taught to situations that are not exactly the same as any they have seen before and that are not susceptible to formula manipulation.
Methods for assessing the degree to which changes to instruction bring about improvements in student understanding are part of a process of applied research that leads to the development of methods and materials that can be adopted by faculty at other institutions. Typically, initial design is based on a set of principles such as those listed in Chapter 2, including knowledge of common student ideas in the topic area. Successive refinements are suggested by post-test results, classroom observations, and further in-depth research (e.g., interviews). Eventually, testing takes place at other institutions to ensure that the methods or materials are transportable and to determine the conditions needed for effective implementation. While this is not by any means the only framework employed in PER, it is emphasized here because many of the innovative methods and materials mentioned in this document resulted from some variation on this procedure.
A broad range of student audiences have benefited from the improvements in instruction that have resulted from research-driven development so far. The majority have been students in introductory calculus and algebra-based courses. Research-based strategies for these courses are too numerous and too varied to summarize here; a brief discussion is presented in Chapter 2, and a good recent review can be found in Meltzer and Thornton (2012).