Measuring Student Expectations in University Physics:
The MPEX Survey

Edward F. Redish

Department of Physics, University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742-4111

Supported in part by NSF grant RED-9355849.

Presented 7 January, 1997 at the Phoenix meeting of the AAPT. Posted on the Web on 21 January, 1997.


If we want to have a larger fraction of our students learn physics than is presently the case, we have to understand what distinguishes successful from unsuccessful students. Students not only bring to class their prior understanding of physics concepts, they bring assumptions about the nature of physics knowledge, what they are to learn, what skills will be required, and what they need to do to succeed. These "expectations" affect not only how students interpret class activities, but the type of understanding they build. To probe the distribution and impact of these expectations, we have created the Maryland Physics Expectations (MPEX) Survey, a set of statements with which students are asked to agree or disagree. Observations of more than 2000 students at a dozen institutions in first semester physics classes show that many students have expectation misconceptions. Furthermore, the first semester class tends to deteriorate rather than improve these expectations.

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Proceed to talk.

Measuring Student Expectations in University Physics:
The MPEX Survey

Edward F. Redish,
Physics Education Research Group
University of Maryland, College Park

Supported in part by NSF grant RED-9355849


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Many members of the University of Maryland Physics Education Research Group have contributed to this research.

E. F. RedishRichard Steinberg
John LaymanGrad Students
Angelo Bardasis (dec.)Lei Bao
VisitorsJohn Lello
Al SapirsteinMel Sabella
John ChristopherJeff Saul
Pratibha JollyMichael Wittmann

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I. Motivation: Why study expectations?

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Our changing audience

Physics majors are special However, less than 1% of students in introductory physics will go on to graduate school in physics. Less than 3% will ever take another physics course.

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What can we offer?

Although physics is and will continue to be needed by all scientists and engineers, it does not need to be taught by physicists in a separate course.

If we want to keep our students, we need to offer them help in developing those skills we can do best.

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What are the barriers?

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These barriers cause problems

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II. Learning in adults: What is known?

Two important studies of the development of student attitudes, expectations, and epistemologies -- outside of science -- are:

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Stages of adult expectations

According to Perry and BCGT, adult learners go through stages in their understanding the nature of knowledge:

left arrowRight arrow11Characteristics of Student Expectations

independencelearns independently, believes in their own need to evaluate and under-standtakes what is given by authorities (teacher, text) without evaluation
coherencebelieves physics needs to be considered as a connected, consistent frameworkbelieves physics can be treated as separated facts or "pieces"
conceptsstresses understanding of the underlying ideas and conceptsfocuses on memorizing and using formulas
reality linkbelieves ideas learned in physics are useful in a wide variety of real contextsbelieves ideas learned in physics are unrelated to experiences outside the classroom
math linkconsiders mathematics as a convenient way of representing physical phenomenaviews the physics and the math as independent with no strong relationship between them
effortmakes the effort to use the information available and tries to make sense of it does not attempt to use available information effectively

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Two things seem clear: Further study of the building of appropriate scientific attitudes is needed.

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III. The MPEX Survey: Measuring attitudes

Goals of the study:

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Why a Survey?

Some positives Some negatives

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The MPEX Survey

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Institutions Tested

InstitutionInstructional Characteristics N
University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP)traditional, some classes with group-learning tutorial instead of recitation445
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (UMN)traditional, group-learning research designed problem-solving and labs467
Ohio State University, Columbus (OSU)traditional, some group learning problem solving sections, some interactive lectures445
Dickinson CollegeWorkshop Physics115
a small public liberal arts university (LA)Workshop Physics12
a medium sized public two-year college (TYC)traditional44

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Calibrating the Survey

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Calibration Groups

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The A-D Plot

  • Displays % of responses that agree with our predicted "favorable" response.
  • Plot % unfavorable vs. % favorable on an x-y plot
  • Responses must lie below descending diagonal.

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Calibration Results: Overall

  • The responses of the validation groups for each item are averaged.
  • Average results agree well with prediction.

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Data collection procedure

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Overall Results: Large Universities (M)

  • Introductory mechanics (calculus based) at 3 large research universities: about 500 students each
  • Initial distribution far from ideal.
  • Result of instruction is a loss, not a gain.

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Overall Results: Small Colleges (M)

  • Introductory mechanics (calculus based) at 3 small colleges: about 20-100 students each
  • Initial distribution far from ideal.
  • Result of instruction is a loss, not a gain.

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Items of the Math Cluster

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Math Cluster: Calibration Group

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Math Cluster: Large Universities

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Math Cluster: Small Colleges

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Items of the Effort Cluster

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Effort Cluster: Calibration Group

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Effort Cluster: All Schools

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IV. Implications and Conclusions: Now What?

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Many Questions Remain

This page prepared by

Edward F. Redish

University of Maryland
Physics Department
College Park, MD 20742-4111
(301) 405-6120

For more information on the MPEX Survey and the University of Maryland Expectations project, click here.