Student performance in first-year physics: does high school matter?

Therese Au, Manjula Sharma

Abstract


At The University of Sydney, approximately one in four first-year physics students have not studied senior high school physics. Previous studies have concluded that taking a high school physics course has a positive effect on student performance in undergraduate physics. To our knowledge, no study has examined whether students who do not study senior high school physics are negatively affected when integrated into a first-year physics class with students who have studied senior high school physics. An educational context was found in which such a study could be performed. Thus, we investigate the consequences of integrating students with different high school physics backgrounds into the same undergraduate physics stream. The sample consisted of 233 first-year physics students. Of these, 109 had studied senior high school physics, while 124 students had not. We investigated the examination performance of matched groups at senior high school and at university. When both groups were integrated into the same Semester 2 physics stream, known as Environmental and Life Science, there was no statistically significant difference in the Environmental and Life Science raw examination marks for two of the three matched groups (p = 0.421, p = 0.157), and a borderline significant difference for the third matched group (p = 0.049). We conclude that students with no background in senior high school physics are generally not disadvantaged in the Environmental and Life Science physics course, when compared with students who have studied high school physics.

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