University of Maryland Physics Education Research Group
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Student Expectations in University Physics: Overview
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
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 , Linn , and others have demonstrated that students have
misconceptions about science and about what they should be doing in a science class. Hammer  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
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.
- relation of physics to reality
- understanding of the role of mathematics in physics and
- applying appropriate effort.
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)
part by NSF grant RED-9355849.