Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Three pedagogical approaches to introductory physics labs and their effects on student learning outcomes
by Chambers, Timothy, Ph.D., The University of Arizona, 2014, 214; 3620074
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation presents the results of an experiment that measured the learning outcomes associated with three different pedagogical approaches to introductory physics labs. These three pedagogical approaches presented students with the same apparatus and covered the same physics content, but used different lab manuals to guide students through distinct cognitive processes in conducting their laboratory investigations. We administered post-tests containing multiple-choice conceptual questions and free-response quantitative problems one week after students completed these laboratory investigations. In addition, we collected data from the laboratory practical exam taken by students at the end of the semester. Using these data sets, we compared the learning outcomes for the three curricula in three dimensions of ability: conceptual understanding, quantitative problem-solving skill, and laboratory skills.

Our three pedagogical approaches are as follows. Guided labs lead students through their investigations via a combination of Socratic-style questioning and direct instruction, while students record their data and answers to written questions in the manual during the experiment. Traditional labs provide detailed written instructions, which students follow to complete the lab objectives. Open labs provide students with a set of apparatus and a question to be answered, and leave students to devise and execute an experiment to answer the question. In general, we find that students performing Guided labs perform better on some conceptual assessment items, and that students performing Open labs perform significantly better on experimental tasks. Combining a classical test theory analysis of post-test results with in-lab classroom observations allows us to identify individual components of the laboratory manuals and investigations that are likely to have influenced the observed differences in learning outcomes associated with the different pedagogical approaches. Due to the novel nature of this research and the large number of item-level results we produced, we recommend additional research to determine the reproducibility of our results.

Analyzing the data with item response theory yields additional information about the performance of our students on both conceptual questions and quantitative problems. We find that performing lab activities on a topic does lead to better-than-expected performance on some conceptual questions regardless of pedagogical approach, but that this acquired conceptual understanding is strongly context-dependent. The results also suggest that a single “Newtonian reasoning ability” is inadequate to explain student response patterns to items from the Force Concept Inventory. We develop a framework for applying polytomous item response theory to the analysis of quantitative free-response problems and for analyzing how features of student solutions are influenced by problem-solving ability. Patterns in how students at different abilities approach our post-test problems are revealed, and we find hints as to how features of a free-response problem influence its item parameters. The item-response theory framework we develop provides a foundation for future development of quantitative free-response research instruments.

Chapter 1 of the dissertation presents a brief history of physics education research and motivates the present study. Chapter 2 describes our experimental methodology and discusses the treatments applied to students and the instruments used to measure their learning. Chapter 3 provides an introduction to the statistical and analytical methods used in our data analysis. Chapter 4 presents the full data set, analyzed using both classical test theory and item response theory. Chapter 5 contains a discussion of the implications of our results and a data-driven analysis of our experimental methods. Chapter 6 describes the importance of this work to the field and discusses the relevance of our research to curriculum development and to future work in physics education research.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Novodvorsky, Ingrid, Prather, Edward
School: The University of Arizona
Department: Physics
School Location: United States -- Arizona
Source: DAI-A 75/08(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Educational tests & measurements, Physics, Science education
Keywords: IRT, Item response, Labs, Learning outcomes, Physics, Physics education research (PER), Problem-solving
Publication Number: 3620074
ISBN: 978-1-303-89761-0
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