The Committee on Undergraduate Physics Education Research and Implementation was established in 2010, under the auspices of the Board on Physics and Astronomy, by the National Research Council. This report is the committee’s response to its statement of task, which is given in full in Appendix A. Its central charge is as follows:
The committee will produce a report that identifies the goals and challenges facing undergraduate physics education and identifies how best practices for undergraduate physics education can be implemented on a widespread and sustained basis. In so doing, the committee will assess the status of physics education research (PER) and will discuss how PER can assist in accomplishing the goal of improving undergraduate physics education best practices and education policy.
In the course of the committee’s work several themes emerged:
• PHYSICS IS FUNDAMENTAL AND FOUNDATIONAL: Undergraduate physics education provides students with unique skills and ways of thinking that are of profound value to the students and to society.
a. Physics explores and answers the most fundamental of questions: the origin of the universe, the nature of matter and energy, and symmetries and laws that shape everything. It provides a framework and discipline for probing these questions, whose range of applicability extends far beyond the physical sciences.
b. Physics students learn to develop conceptual and mathematical approaches to models to help them understand complicated systems and solve complex problems. As a result of learning the inquiry process and ways of thinking used in physics, students with a physics education are prepared for success in complex analytical professional programs such as medicine, business, finance, and law.
c. Physics is concerned with topics that underlie most other branches of science and engineering, and it is relevant to current societal concerns such as energy, nanotechnology, and national security.
• SYSTEMIC TENSIONS: The familiar college environment in which physics is currently taught is threatened by powerful, rapidly changing external forces, and U.S. physics departments will either adapt and improve or fade.
a. Although many students (~500,000/year) study introductory physics, only about 1 percent end up with physics degrees. At many institutions, the number of majors is so low that it invites merging of the physics department with other science departments.
b. Electronic communication and networking technologies are transforming, in both positive and negative ways, all educational institutions and programs, including physics.
c. Economic realities are pressing undergraduate physics education (and all of higher education) to achieve reduced costs and improved outcomes.
d. Universities and colleges, including their physics departments, have generally been slow to make changes that adequately respond to these challenges.
• MAJOR CHALLENGES: Current practices in undergraduate physics education do not serve most students well.
a. Important groups remain underserved by the current paradigm (women, underrepresented minorities, prospective high school teachers).
b. As evidenced by pre- and post-testing, most students taking introductory physics do not gain a genuine understanding of the concepts, practices of inquiry, or mental habits used in the discipline.
c. Improvements are needed in the initial and subsequent professional training provided to physics teachers, particularly those teaching in K-12.
d. Impediments to needed change include economic constraints, traditional academic cultures, and institutional structures.
e. The subject matter and skills that undergraduates study have remained largely static for more than 50 years. Students learn little about current discoveries and research, which they might find exciting or relevant to their lives.
• IMPROVEMENTS EXIST: Substantial improvements in undergraduate physics education have been made with existing knowledge and resources in a variety of contexts; encouraging and preserving these gains requires a symphony of efforts by many different participants, and improving on them requires continuing research and development.
a. Novel curricula, materials, and approaches to instruction exist that have demonstrated improved results, not only in students’ conceptual and quantitative knowledge of physics, but also in their ability to engage in scientific inquiry.
b. Some physics departments have demonstrated how to be attentive to their student communities, attract more students to physics, retain them through the major, and support them in a variety of career aspirations.
c. There is a substantial and growing research base on which institutions can draw to improve educational practices.
d. Implementing change will require concerted efforts at a range of levels, from individual physics faculty and departments to top administrative levels in universities, state and federal governmental agencies, research funding sources, and professional associations.
• SCIENTIFIC APPROACH TO PHYSICS EDUCATION: Future improvement of undergraduate physics education depends critically on a vigorous physics education research enterprise and effective application of its findings.
a. Physics education research has emerged relatively recently as an important element of the broader academic exploration of the science of teaching and learning.
b. Physics education research has yielded findings that are being applied in the development of better educational practices in some institutions and that could be more universally adopted.
c. Education research in physics is a rapidly growing field and is still finding answers to important questions about learning and pedagogy. Physics education research needs systemic support to fuel future improvements in education.
In Chapter 4, the committee offers suggestions and recommendations to each of the major audiences whose active and concerted engagement is essential to
Places to Start
Websites with easy-to-access information that discusses or provides links to sources that cover many of the topics in this report include comPADRE (http://www.compadre.org) and the PER Users’ Guide (http://perusersguide.org/).
building a successful future for undergraduate physics education. Following is a summary of key recommendations and related detailed recommendations. Additional detailed recommendations are presented in Chapter 4.
Recommendations for Individual Physics Faculty
Individual physics faculty should improve their courses, using objective evidence to judge success. Faculty members should:
• Become knowledgeable about educational innovation in physics and the importance of active engagement of students in the learning process (see Box S.1).
• Engage colleagues in discussions of learning goals, measures of outcome, and strategies for a scientific approach to teaching and evaluating students’ learning, and observe successful approaches to engagement in classroom settings.
• Review and modify courses to reflect the needs of different segments of the student community, including those who might succeed in physics with some additional or different types of help.
• Assess the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of students by using research-based instruments and methods.
• Engage students in a discussion of why and how evidence-based methods that engender effective learning require changing the teaching and learning processes.
Recommendations for Physics Department Leadership
Department leadership should create a culture of continuous improvement in which educational innovation is encouraged, sustained when it succeeds, and tolerated when it fails. Departmental leaders should:
• Discuss and consider how to implement physics-specific learning goals, recognizing the needs of varying student constituencies, the needs of future employers and teachers of these students, and the views of alumni.
• Establish collective responsibility and a commitment to incremental improvement, based on research on programs and courses.
• Provide and participate in professional development opportunities for faculty.
• Provide leadership to implement and support reforms.
Recommendations for Higher-Level Academic Administrators
Academic leadership should encourage faculty groups to seek improvement and should reward faculty and departments that are successful at implementing positive changes. Administrators should:
• Set the tone at the top.
• Establish a teaching and learning group or unit to advise and support faculty engaged in pedagogical improvements.
• Provide incentive funding to faculty who wish to implement evidence-based pedagogical improvements.
• Support faculty who conduct discipline-based education research and the establishment of faculty lines and/or interdisciplinary units to help develop the growth of education research in university science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) departments.
• Include, for all faculty who teach, education research and development among the factors considered in reward structures, not just for those faculty who conduct discipline-based education research.
Recommendations for Funding Agencies
Funding agencies should support positive change at all levels and should support fundamental educational research, development, adoption, and dissemination. More specifically, agencies should:
• Support a balanced portfolio that includes dissemination of good practices as well as applied and foundational education research.
• Educate principal investigators in all areas of physics research about how PER methods and PER-based materials can help them build a relevant educational component for their research projects so that they have a broader impact on the formal or informal education of broad and diverse populations of learners.
• Support development, validation, and implementation of new assessment instruments and provide standards for their interpretation.
• Promote dissemination strategies and research on such strategies that more effectively help faculty and departments incorporate the results of education research into their courses.
• Support research into the impact of instructional improvements on students from groups underrepresented in physics and the impact on capable students who choose not to pursue physics.
Recommendations for Education Researchers
Physics (and other) education researchers should focus some of their efforts on critical areas, including improving fundamental understanding of learning and instruction, and developing and disseminating improved assessment tools and instructional methods and materials. Researchers should:
• Develop assessments to include all components of expert physics learning, including physics reasoning, problem solving, experimental practices, effective study habits and attitudes, and other capabilities important for a good education.
• Develop and disseminate homework and exam problems that require and assess desirable skills.
• Study what makes effective teaching assistants and learning assistants and provide guidance for those preparing and training them.
• Apply physics education research more extensively to upper-division courses.
• Continue and expand research on the impact of research-based instructional improvements on underrepresented groups and on students who are capable but now drop out of physics.
• Continue research efforts that develop a foundational knowledge base for physics education.
Recommendations for Professional Societies
Professional societies should emphasize the importance of education research and play a major role in the dissemination of its results, recognizing those who successfully improve instruction. Professional societies should:
• Publicize the results and endorse the importance of educational developments.
• Collect, review, and make available Web-based resources for individual faculty.
• Convene community leaders and practitioners on a regular basis to discuss and share implementation of better practices.
• Publish physics education research in the general physics journals (e.g., Physical Review Letters and Reviews of Modern Physics) and review in society journals other types of teaching-learning applications in addition to textbooks.
• Expand at meetings the presence of sessions on educational innovations and practices.
• Help guide students’ expectations and improve students’ understanding of pedagogical improvements.
We must all act, and now! In the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”