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Improving Student Learning: The Dual Roles of Conceptual Understanding and Reasoning Ability

Improving Student Learning: The Dual Roles of Conceptual Understanding and Reasoning Ability

Monday, November 13, 2023 at 4:00 pm
116 Weniger
Prof. Paula Heron, Physics, University of Washington

Abstract: Why do students make errors on physics problems? Errors that directly contradict what they have been taught? Errors that don’t arise from the failure to remember the correct formula? For the past several decades, physics education researchers have focused on one compelling explanation: students arrive in the classroom with pre-formed ideas about how the world works. Even though they may blend these ideas with those presented in formal instruction, the prior conceptions often win out. According to these accounts, students’ prior knowledge has been built through rational, if imperfect, processes of observation and analysis, and any new or different ideas presented in the classroom must likewise be built, not simply received. Figuring out what ideas students bring with them to the classroom, and how to take them into account, has proven to be a complex, multi-faceted program of research that has significantly influenced physics teaching. However, it is not always the case that students produce incorrect answers through logical inferences based on incorrect or inappropriate premises – often they don’t know why they chose a particular answer, just that it seems right. “Dual-process” theories suggest that their answers might not be based on so-called “slow” thinking, which is deliberate and laborious. Instead they might be based on so-called “fast” thinking, which is automatic and effortless. The basic idea is that students immediately and effortlessly form a first-impression of a physics problem. If this impression is found to be satisfactory, it will be adopted. Otherwise, a deliberate and analytical process ensues. It is believed that this sequence cannot be “turned off.” That is, a first impression will always be formed. If it is attractive, and the benefits of engaging in more effortful thinking are not obvious, then a student may answer incorrectly, masking their conceptual knowledge. In this talk, I will discuss recent efforts to improve both conceptual understanding and reasoning skills. Examples will be chosen from first-year university-level physics.

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Speaker bio: Paula R.L. Heron is a Professor of Physics at the University of Washington. She holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Western Ontario. Dr. Heron’s research focuses on the development of conceptual understanding and reasoning skills. She has given numerous invited talks at international meetings and in university science departments. Dr. Heron is co-Founder and co-Chair of the biannual “Foundations and Frontiers in Physics Education Research” conference series, the premier venue for physics education researchers in North America. She has held leadership roles in the American Physical Society (APS), the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), and the European Physics Education Research Group (GIREP). She co-chaired an APS/AAPT joint task force that produced the report Phys21: Preparing Physics Students for 21st Century Careers and co-edited the first International Handbook on Physics Education Research, (AIP, 2023). She also serves as an Associate Editor of Physical Review – PER. She is a Fellow of the APS, a co-recipient of the APS Education award with colleagues Peter Shaffer and Lillian McDermott, and recipient of the Homer Dodge Citation for Outstanding Service to the AAPT. Dr. Heron is a co-author on the upcoming 2nd Edition of Tutorials in Introductory Physics, a set of influential instructional materials.