Name: Nicholas Young
Type of Project: Undergraduate Research
1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.
For my STEP project, I worked with Dr. Heckler in the physics department on understanding student difficulties with graphical and mathematical representations of oscillatory motion. This summer, we developed a 30 item test to probe student reasoning about topics such as determining the period, angular frequency, and phase constant from a graphical representation, and determining how a change in one parameter of a simple harmonic oscillator, such as the period, would affect a different parameter, such as the maximum velocity. After more than 100 students completed the task, I was responsible for inputting all the student responses into a spreadsheet and to begin analyzing the data to determine what students had difficulties with.
2. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?
While completing my STEP project, I became more aware of the difficulties that students have with physics. Previously, I had thought that difficulties in the classroom came only from not understanding the material rather than due to a variety of factors. For example, prior beliefs and interference between different concepts can make learning and understanding the material more difficult regardless of the effort a student puts into the class. Due to this, students not only struggle with the material but also must learn material that seems to contradict their life experience. By working with students and looking into these difficulties, I have a greater understanding of why physics is seen as a difficult course.
3. What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?
A combination of interactions and activities led to the transformation I mentioned previously. Since my research centered around understanding student difficulties with oscillatory motion, I had to read scientific literature about know student difficulties as well as various methods other researchers have developed in order to probe for student difficulties. Through this reading, I became more aware of variety of difficulties that students have when learning physics. For example, some of the difficulties students experience are a result of their prior beliefs while others are caused by a lack of prerequisite skills and still others are caused by a failure to reconcile contradictory beliefs. Developing this knowledge was essential for the next part of the project.
The second part of the project consisted of having students take tests in order to see where the students had difficulties and what the nature of those difficulties was. From the results, I was able to see instances of interference between different concepts the students were learning and cases where the students lacked a firm conceptual understanding despite completing homework problems and attending lectures on the topic. Because most students tended to answer similar questions in a similar manner, I was able to pinpoint which concepts students struggled with compared to concepts where students only had mild difficulty.
In addition to simply having the students take tests, I also observed students doing what are called a “think-aloud” tasks. As the name implies, while doing a “think-aloud” task, the student verbalizes what they are thinking and doing as they go through the questions and solve the problems. This was possibly the most important contributor to my transformation. By listening to students’ thought processes, I was able to see where students were having difficulties as well as gain some insight into why the students were having difficulties. In a few notable cases, the students verbalized why they were confused and how different topics they had learned in class seemed to be contradicting each other.
4. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?
Since I plan to be a professor of physics, understanding where my students will have difficulties is essential in helping them become successful students and to maximize their learning. From my personal experience, I have found many people are “turned off” by physics since they perceive physics to be difficult and too challenging. By being aware of difficulties that students have, I hope that I will be able to alleviate some of the difficulties students have so that their physics courses will not appear as daunting.
Additionally, as I become more aware of difficulties that introductory students have with their physics courses, I am starting to notice where I have difficulties in my courses so that I can target those areas. Using what I have learned this summer, I have a framework to analyze my own learning and can work to improve my own learning.