University of Maryland Physics Education Research Group

UMd PERG PageTitle

Learning How to Learn Science: Physics for Bioscience Majors

Research areas

Epistemological Resources

Research on conceptual knowledge has identified conceptual resources from which students may construct expert understanding.[1]  Students’ sense of the springiness of a spring, for example, is a resource for understanding the passive force a table exerts upward on a book. Are there aspects of students’ everyday experience that may serve as epistemological resources for constructing an understanding of how to learn science?

We are beginning to develop an account of epistemological resources, looking for context-sensitive structures  at a finer grain-size than “beliefs.” [2] Children from a young age evidently have a variety of resources for thinking about knowledge, including as propagated (“Mom told me”), as free creation (“I made it up”), and as fabricated  ( “I figured it out”). Different contexts activate different resources.  We are working to identify resources and their contexts of activation in students’ epistemologies.

Instructional Strategies to Promote Meta-learning
A number of groups working in similar settings have devised strategies to incorporate small group interactions into large lecture courses.[3] These strategies have been  developed to help students achieve strong gains in conceptual understanding, and have been shown to be effective at this goal.  They are widely used in introductory physics courses. They have not, however, been shown to help students improve in meta-learning.  In fact, there is evidence of as deleterious an effect on student approaches to learning in courses using these methods as in traditional lecture courses.

We are retooling these familiar strategies to include an explicit focus on student meta-learning.  In this we are drawing on previous research in group discussion, collaborative design,  and  self-explanations.[4]  We will be collecting video data of students working within the course and copies of their written work, as well as interview and survey data, to monitor students’ progress and document changes in their approaches, attitudes, and epistemologies.

Creation of a Survey instrument
Previous work of the UMd PERG created the Maryland Physics Expectations Survey (MPEX) to measure  student expectations and understanding of the nature of science learning for engineering students in calculus-based physics.[5] This survey has been translated into 6 languages and delivered to thousands of students in universities around the world.  For this project we will modify this survey, making use of what we have  learned from our epistemological resources research.


[1] J. Clement; D. Brown and A. Zeitsman, "Not all preconceptions are misconceptions:  Finding 'anchoring conceptions' for grounding instruction on students' intuitions.," International Journal of Science Education. 11,554-565 (1989); A. diSessa, “Toward an Epistemology of Physics,” Cognition and Instruction 10, 105-225(1993).

[2] D. Hammer and A. Elby, "On the form of a personal epistemology," Personal Epistemolgy:  The Psychology of Beliefs about Knowledge and Knowing, B. K. Hofer and P. R. Pintrich, ed. (Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, N.J., in press)

[3] P. Heller, R. Keith and S. Anderson, “Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 1: Group versus individual problem solving,” Am. J. Phys. 60, 627-636 (1992); P. Heller and M. Hollabaugh, “Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups,” Am. J. Phys. 60, 637-644 (1992). ; L. C. McDermott, P. S. Shaffer, and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington, Tutorials in Introductory Physics (Prentice Hall, 1998); E. Mazur, Peer Instruction (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1997).

[4] A. Schoenfeld, “Metacognitive and epistemological issues in mathematical understanding,” in E. A. Silver, Ed., Teaching and Learning Mathematical Problem Solving: Multiple Research Perspectives (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1985 ); A. diSessa; D. Hammer; B. Sherin and T. Kolpakowski, "Inventing graphing:  Meta-representational expertise in children," Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 10,117-160 (1991); M. T. H. Chi, N. de Leeuw, M-H Chiu, and C. laVancher, “Eliciting self-explanations improves understanding,” Cog. Sci. 18, 439-477 (1994); J. R. Frederiksen, B. Y. White, and J. Gutwill, “Dynamic mental models in learning sciences: The importance of constructing derivational linkages among models,” J. Res. Sci. Teaching 36(7) 806-836 (1999).

[5] E. F. Redish, J. M. Saul, and R. N. Steinberg, “Student expectations in introductory physics,” Am. J. Phys. 66, 212-224 (1998)

Work supported in part by a grant from the US National Science Foundation. 

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Maintained by University of Maryland PERG
Comments and questions may be directed to E. F. Redish
Last modified March 13, 2001