Graduate Students in
Physics Education Research

AAPT Winter Meeting, Pheonix, AZ:
GSPER Crackerbarrel sesssion.

Answering the question "Should There Be Physics Education Groups in Physics Departments?"

Andy Johnson's notes from AAPT GSPER crackerbarrel, 1/6/97

Topic Overview: (pro and con discussed for each)

I have arranged my notes in order of topic, with a statement and then a rebuttal where appropriate. I personally believe that the "physicists must do it" argument is the most compelling and the least vulnerable.

"Local improvement of physics instruction" argument (pro)

The quality of teaching in the department will improve if there is a PER group in the department.

This will help ensure that financial resources are available for the department, because the "head count" will not drop (due to the possibility of other departments no longer requiring their students to take physics courses.) In fact, there is the possibility that with improved teaching in physics courses, more students would enroll in them, either voluntarily, or on the recommendation of their department.

In an age of shrinking budgets, parents, administrators, and students themselves are more concerned with getting more bang for their buck. Having a PER group in the department raises the possibility that these constituencies will receive satisfaction, through improved instruction.

Traditional (blinders) response, rebuttal to above (con)

I think we do a pretty good job of teaching already. Don't insult me by implying that we don't.
I admit that we have some (deadwood professors / profs who aren't able to connect with the students.) What makes you think that a PER group would influence them?
The best way to support good teaching is by supporting traditional physics research, because:

"Physicists must do it" (pro)

Physicists must do the work of developing physics curricula and of improving teaching methods. We all know (partly because we know that so few people have learned physics well enough) that people trained in the field of education, cognitive scientists, etc. don't understand the physics content well enough to understand the important features of physics. They don't know the nuances.

Also, if improved teaching methods are to be conveyed to physicists, communication is bound to be better between members of the physics department than between the physics and education departments.

In a similar vein, implementation of improved physics courses would be awkward, to say the least, coming from a different department.

Historically, changes in educational thinking have not changed the way that physics is taught. (note from Andy: my advisor told me that this argument need not be made to physicists. They would not disagree with the statement "physicists must do it.")

Rebuttal (con)

Fine, but not in this department. Let them do it at the U of Washington.

The "bottom line" argument (con)

Resources are shrinking. "Resources" means state funding, faculty lines, external funding sources, physics graduate students, and maybe even enrollments. At this time, it seems prudent to put departmental efforts into established research programs that can attract external funding and bring prestige to the department.

Rebuttal (pro)

PER can attract grant money as well. Consider (science standards, state initiative, etc.) for example. With regard to enrollment and grad student issues, if the teaching of physics improves, then more students might enroll at all levels.

The "it's not physics" argument. (con)

PER is not physics. It is more like a social science. There is a huge epistemological gap between the two fields. Physicists believe that they are working ever closer to an ultimate truth, and this brings a lot of respect to the field. Social sciences, and education in particular, are prone to fads and the question can be raised whether real progress is ever made. Results are difficult to reproduce. Implications are not easy to infer from results. The methods of educational research are different from methods of science.

The prestige of the department might be reduced if some of the faculty's research activities are not in physics itself.

The prestige of the department might be reduced if students earn degrees in education from the department.

Rebuttal (pro)

Physics already has a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary programs, of which PER can be thought of as just another type. It appears that much of the really interesting and important learning these days is taking place between fields.

The "Don't mess with a 'good thing'" argument. (con)

We don't want to introduce controversy into the physics department. What if some classes are experimented on and the experiment is a flop? What if the students, parents, dean, etc. complain? New methods should be shown to work before being tried out on our students.

And what about the ethics of experimenting on students who come to this university to get an education? They want the best classes, so putting them in experimental sections or in lower-achieving control groups may be unethical.

Rebuttal (pro)

No research has shown that traditional lecture courses work very well. Physicists-to-be succeed in them but these are a small minority.

Improvements in physics teaching require that experiments are done, and in fact, most experimental courses result in increased learning by students, so the net result of educational experiments in this department would be a positive one. Also, few research projects employ control group classes.

Maintaining the status quo can be unethical when improved methods of teaching are available.

This page was prepared by Michael Wittmann, University of Maryland, College Park. Any corrections, additions, or comments are welcome!!! To get in touch with Michael, send email to


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