Discipline Based Education Research [1]

By: Dr. Ben Newling, Acting Chair of Physics & University Teaching Scholar, University of New Brunswick

“Experienced instructors recognize that in spite of their best efforts many students emerge from their study of physics with serious gaps in their understanding of important topics.” This alarming statement opens a 1999 review paper by Lillian McDermott and Joe Redish [2], in which the authors review some twenty years of Physics Education Research (PER). The field developed as physicists struggled to understand how their students could leave a physics course, or even a physics degree, with some pretty serious misunderstandings about the principles of physics. The physics-focused origins of PER are different than those of traditional SoTL and so there are differences in emphasis and approach in the two communities. PER and SoTL exist in two strangely parallel universes, with their own conferences and journals, but there are, of course, all kinds of overlap. Many folk inhabit both worlds, but there are some in either camp whose SoTL undertakings might benefit from knowing about what is happening in the other. James Fraser pointed out this opportunity (thanks, James) at the most recent SoTL Canada AGM. James’ suggestion, that the SoTL community maintain contact with the various discipline-based education research (DBER) communities, prompted this post.

Physics is not the only discipline to have its own community of active researchers in education: The American Astronomical Society, The American Institute of Biological Sciences, The National Council of Teachers of English, The American Chemical Society, The American Geophysical Union, The American Historical Association and the British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics all take stances in support of discipline-specific education research. The American Physical Society supports a lively, refereed research journal, Physical Review Physics Education Research, which has sister publications in the CBE – Life Sciences Education, Research in the Teaching of English, the Journal of Chemical Education, the Journal of Geoscience Education, The History Teacher, and Research in Mathematics Education, for example. Professional societies and their education research resources may be based in a specific country, but their journals often have an international reach.

The physics version of DBER is relatively mature (although the American Society for Engineering Education has been on the go since 1893), so a swift overview of some resources available to physics educators might give an impression of what may be available in other disciplines. The American Association of Physics Teachers maintains the ComPADRE.org portal. Among the many links is PER-Central, which curates articles, theses, dissertations, a list of active research groups and curricular material, all catalogued by educational topic (e.g. “cognition”) and by physics topic (e.g. “electricity & magnetism”). Also linked from ComPADRE.org is PhysPort, which collects resources for physics teachers based on the results of PER, such as concept inventories. PhysPort supports SoTL endeavours with a “data explorer”, which allows you to upload classroom data and analyze it in standardized ways. The PER Conference (PERC) Proceedings [3] are published on PER Central and provide a useful overview of current PER trends and well as direction to researchers and potential collaborators in physics SoTL.

The resources afforded by DBER communities can be a useful support in moving from disciplinary to teaching & learning research; many of the members of DBER communities have made that same transition [4,5]. Additionally, the DBER communities are a rich source of SoTL contacts and ideas for those already engaged in SoTL research. A few minutes browsing DBER sites, might be time well spent.

Physics: compadre.org

Biology: https://www.aibs.org/education 

English: www.ncte.org

Chemistry: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education.html

Earth Sciences: education.agu.org

History: www.http://www.societyforhistoryeducation.org

Mathematics: www.bsrlm.org.uk

Engineering: www.asee.org

[1] “Discipline-Based Education Research: A Scientist’s Guide” S. J. Slater, T. F. Slater and J. M. Bailey (2010) W. H. Freeman & Company, New York, USA.

[2] “Resource Letter : PER-1: Physics Education Research” L. C. McDermott and E. F. Redish (1999) Am. J. Physics 67 755.

[3] http://www.compadre.org/per/perc/ (accessed August 2017).

[4] “On the interaction of physics with science education research”, P. W. Hewson (2016) 2016 PERC Proceedings [Sacramento, CA, July 20-21, 2016], edited by D. L. Jones, L. Ding, and A. Traxler, doi:10.1119/perc.2016.plenary.003.

[5] http://www.compadre.org/per/per_reviews/ (accessed August 2017) Volume 2: Getting Started in PER.

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