Similar methods have been used to achieve improvements in upper-division courses on electricity and magnetism (Chasteen et al., 2011; Pollock, 2009), classical mechanics (Ambrose, 2004), thermal physics (Cochran and Heron, 2006; Meltzer, 2004), and quantum mechanics (Singh, 2001; Cataloglu and Robinett, 2002; Zollman et al., 2002). Courses for elementary and secondary teachers have also been addressed (Etkina, 2010; McDermott et al., 2006, 1996; Goldberg et al., 2008; Zollman, 1990, 1996).

One of the difficulties of measuring improvements in instruction is that physics faculty and physics courses represent a variety of instructional goals that are rarely carefully articulated. Developing student understanding of physics concepts and developing student problem-solving abilities are often the top-stated goals for physics courses. Yet, the precise articulation and pursuit of these goals in terms of measurable student outcomes is rarely done.

Additional information on PER and research-based instructional methods can be found at PER Central ( and the PER User’s Guide ( Box 3.1 lists some short books that include additional information on using research-based methods in instruction. A series of articles published in the American Journal of Physics by winners of the AAPT’s Oersted Medal and Millikan Award provides overviews of research and the development of research-based instructional materials and methods and includes articles by Lillian McDermott, Edward Redish, Priscilla Laws, Fred Goldberg, Frederick Reif, Carl Wieman, and Alan Van Heuvelen, among others.


One of the most robust findings from PER is that traditional, lecture-style introductory courses have little long-lasting effect on students’ erroneous notions about the physical world (McDermott, 1991; Hake, 1998). This can be assessed by asking students simple questions such as making a prediction or drawing an inference about a physical situation. Memorization of formulas or even a relatively high level of skill at solving traditional end-of-chapter problems is inadequate for reasoning in these situations. Further, research has determined that students’ responses to such questions are typically not random and idiosyncratic. Instead, a small number of erroneous reasoning patterns are documented among a large variety of students. For example, when asked about the forces acting on a coin tossed straight up (and told to neglect air resistance), many students cite “a steadily decreasing upward force,” possibly reasoning that upward motion implies an upward force and a decreasing velocity implies a decreasing force (Clement, 1982). Common student ideas such as this have been identified in almost all areas of physics.

Early research seeking to identify such ideas typically involved one-on-one interviews in which students were asked to apply the physics that they had learned

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