University of Maryland Physics Education Research Group

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Student Expectations in University Physics: Overview

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Student understanding of what science is about and how it is done, and their expectations as to what goes on in a science course play a powerful role in what they can get out of an introductory calculus-based university physics course. This is particularly true when there is a large gap between what the students expect to do and what the professor expects them to do. In the Maryland Physics Expectations (MPEX) project*, the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Maryland has been investigating the distribution of student expectations at the beginning of the course, the effect of their expectations on their behavior during the course, and the effect of the course on changing their expectations.

1. Students' expectations are important.

What students expect will happen in their introductory calculus-based (university) physics course plays a critical role in what they will learn during the course. It affects what they listen to and what they ignore in the firehose of information provided during a typical course by professor, teaching assistant, laboratory, and text. It affects what activities students select in constructing their own knowledge base and in building their own understanding of the course material.

Note: We limit our use of the phrase student expectations to the meaning: "what students expect will happen in the class, what they expect to do, and what they believe is the nature of science and scientific learning". It can also be used to mean "what the student expects will happen in a physical experiment". These latter are content expectations; in this proposal we are focusing on what might be called context expectations.

2. Students often have incorrect expectations that professors aren't aware of or don't deal with.

Studies at the pre-college level by Carey [1], Linn [2], and others have demonstrated that students have misconceptions about science and about what they should be doing in a science class. Hammer [3] has demonstrated similar problems in college students in a small number of detailed interviews. When students' expectations are distorted by misconceptions about the nature of science, the nature of scientific knowledge, and the nature of what they can learn and how to learn it, what the students extract from the course may be very different from what the professor expects. This is particularly true when the professorís goals for the studentsí learning are a "hidden agenda" -- neither articulated explicitly during the course nor enforced through appropriate testing. Students' expectations can have both broad, general implications for how they study and detailed implications for how they interpret or use particular activities.

3. A significant number of students enter the university physics with misconceptions as to the nature of the subject and their role in learning it. The typical introductory physics course does not improve this situation.

We have studied the expectations of university physics students using the MPEX Survey at more than a dozen colleges and universities to more than 3000 students. The results of our study indicate that there is a significant gap between expert responses to this survey and that of novice students. The impact of one semester of mechanics instruction tends to be an increase in the discrepancy between expert and student attitudes rather than an improvement. Particular problems lie in the areas of

In our study, the least overall damage was done by innovative courses designed by workers relying on the results of physics education research, delivered at the institution where the course was developed.

For more details, see


1. Carey, Susan, Rita Evans, Maya Honda, Eileen Jay, and Christopher Unger, " 'An experiment is when you try it and see if it works': a study of grade 7 students' understanding of the construction of scientific knowledge", Int. J. Sci. Ed. 11 (1989) 514-529.

2. Linn, Marcia C., and N. B. Songer, "Cognitive and conceptual change in adolescence", Am. J. of Educ.(August, 1991) 379-417.

3. Hammer, David, "Defying common sense: Epistemological beliefs in an introductory physics course" (1991), Ph.D. Thesis, U. of California, Berkeley.

For more information on this survey, or the results of our studies, check out the MPEX homepage or contact

Prof. E. F. Redish
Department of Physics
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742-4111
Phone: 301-405-6120 (Voice); 301-405-6114 (Fax)

*Supported in part by NSF grant RED-9355849.

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Last modified April 25, 2002