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Qualitative investigation of students’ views about experimental physics

TitleQualitative investigation of students’ views about experimental physics
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsHu, D, Zwickl, BM, Wilcox, BR, Lewandowski, HJ
JournalPhysical Review Physics Education Research
Date Published2017-11

This study examines students’ reasoning surrounding seemingly contradictory Likert-scale responses within five items in the Colorado Learning Attitudes About Science Survey for Experimental Physics (E-CLASS). We administered the E-CLASS with embedded open-ended prompts, which asked students to provide explanations after making a Likert-scale selection. The quantitative scores on those items showed that our sample of the 216 students enrolled in first year and beyond first year physics courses demonstrated the same trends as previous national data. A qualitative analysis of students’ open-ended responses was used to examine common reasoning patterns related to particular Likert-scale responses. When explaining responses to items regarding the role of experiments in confirming known results and also contributing to the growth of scientific knowledge, a common reasoning pattern suggested that confirming known results in a classroom experiment can help with understanding concepts. Thus, physics experiments contribute to students’ personal scientific knowledge growth, while also confirming widely known results. Many students agreed that having correct formatting and making well-reasoned conclusions are the main goal for communicating experimental results. Students who focused on sections and formatting emphasized how it enables clear and efficient communication. However, very few students discussed the link between well-reasoned conclusions and effective scientific communication. Lastly, many students argued it was possible to complete experiments without understanding equations and physics concepts. The most common justification was that they could simply follow instructions to finish the lab without understanding. The findings suggest several implications for teaching physics laboratory courses, for example, incorporating some lab activities with outcomes that are unknown to the students might have a significant impact on students’ understanding of experiments as an important approach for developing scientific knowledge.

Short TitlePhys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res.