Is there a right way to teach physics?


  • Ian Johnston
  • Rosemary Millar


An important development in university physics teaching in the last two decades has been the emergence of a worldwide Physics Education Research community. In physics departments at relatively large numbers of institutions throughout the world, particularly the USA and Europe, academic physicists are doing research into the difficulties associated with teaching their subject. Among the many directions this research has taken is the identification of 'misconceptions' (sometimes referred to as 'alternative conceptions'). These are ideas or concepts which students have constructed for themselves, based on their own experience of the natural world, which are often in conflict with the agreed view of practicing scientists. Research has shown that these 'misconceptions' are very widely shared, very often in conflict with other concepts the student holds, and very difficult to change. Following on from this research, as it were, a lot of work has been done to develop special diagnostic tests to uncover which, if any, of these misconceptions particular students hold. They normally consist of series of multiple choice questions, in which the 'right' answer is hidden among very tempting distracters, each one targeting one or more common misconceptions.Among the best known of these tests, in the subject area of kinematics and dynamics, are the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) and the Mathematics and Physics Concept Evaluation (MCPE) This research has, in turn, prompted the development of teaching strategies which target specific classes of misconceptions - in the (understandable) belief that, if students can get the fundamental concepts 'right', they have a better chance of understanding the rest of the subject.The results of these strategies are reported in the literature, and there is coming to be a consensus within the physics education community that, for example, traditional (chalk and talk, lectures plus laboratories) teaching is relatively ineffective in changing misconceptions. On the other hand, one recent survey of over 7000 students in the USA has shown that teaching which employs interactive methods can result in significant increases in understanding (as measured by these diagnostic tests). It would seem important therefore that teachers everywhere should take these findings seriously, and, where possible, test whether the same gain in understanding can be achieved in other teaching contexts.