The second external meeting I attended last week, this time at the University of Warwick, was a meeting of the Institute of Physics Higher Education Group entitled ‘Conceptual understanding : beyond diagnostic testing’. The messages that I’ve come home with are that student misunderstandings may not be what we think they are – and that we need to find out more. Derek Raine’s talk ‘Metaphors and misunderstandings: addressing student misconceptions in physics’ started off with a (presumably apocryphol – and I’m sure I won’t do the story justice) tale of a famous actress being shown to a dressing room in a provincial theatre. Her hosts were embarassed about the poor standard of their facilities and apologised that the dressing room had no door. But, she said ‘if there’s no door, how do I get in?’ Yes, we really are sometimes that much at cross-purposes with our students.
In physics education research, much attention has been given over the years to the ‘Force Concept Inventory’ (FCI), where a series of questions is used to assess student understanding of the Newtonian concepts of force. At the meeting, Marion Birch described common trends in FCI results at the universities of Manchester, Hull and Edinburgh – two questions seem to cause particular problems wherever they are asked. More startling are the gender differences – women do less well than men and two questions (different from those that are poorly answered by all) have particularly large differences. What Marion was describing was inarguable (though some of the women at the meeting wanted to argue…) but I want to know what is causing the results! Is the difference at the level of conceptual (mis)understanding or is it something about these particular questions that is causing women more difficulty than men? This is just far to interesting to let it go – we must find out what is going on.
The final presentation of the day was from Paula Heron (by video link from the University of Washington) on ‘Using students’ spontaneous reasoning to guide the design of effective instructional strategies’. I think we do need to start observing our students carefully, and asking about their reasoning, rather than just assuming that they answer mutliple-choice questions in the way that they do because of a particular misconception.