Collaborative Research: Examining the Development of Student Reasoning Skills Through Scaffolded Physics Instruction

Project: Research project

Project Details


This is a collaborative project involving North Dakota State University (Award DUE-1431857), the University of Maine (Award DUE-1431940), Penn State Greater Allegheny (Award DUE-1431541), the University of Washington (Award DUE-1432765), and Western Washington University (Award DUE-1432052).

In addition to helping students learn foundational physics content, one of the most important goals of a college-level physics course is to help students learn how to reason. To be successful in STEM fields, students must be able to build multi-step explanations leading to a prediction, an inference, or a conclusion. Experienced physics instructors recognize that this is difficult for many students. Although a great deal of research has been conducted on how students develop an understanding of individual concepts in physics, there has been little research to date on how students learn to chain ideas together. In many cases, instructional interventions have been shown to help the strongest students most, thereby widening the gap between high- and low-achieving students. Differences in students' underlying reasoning abilities might account for this disparity of impact. The outcomes of this project have the potential both to decrease such gaps and to increase the retention of at-risk students in STEM disciplines. Because this is a new avenue of research, one of the primary goals of this project is to develop tools and methods for the reliable measurement of student reasoning, and to test these tools with diverse student populations. These tools will be shared with other researchers so that they can be applied more widely in studies of the development of students' reasoning abilities in STEM courses.

Despite a sustained focus on reasoning and problem solving from a variety of research perspectives, little is known about how students construct inferential reasoning chains in solving qualitative physics problems. Because of the importance of reasoning in developing and applying scientific knowledge, as well as the relative lack of empirical and theoretical resources for understanding and assessing the development of such reasoning, there is a need for more research in this area. Central to this exploratory project is the development of new instruments and methodologies for disentangling conceptual understanding of physics from the reasoning abilities required to apply that understanding productively. Specific objectives of the project are (1) to develop instruments capable of reliably measuring student reasoning and (2) to use those instruments to investigate the development of student reasoning in university physics courses. The investigators will concurrently pursue both the development and refinement of instruments and the generation of new knowledge about students' reasoning in physics, including the identification of factors and instructional circumstances that enhance or suppress the application of productive reasoning approaches. The investigators will employ three complementary strategies: (1) the collection and analysis of snapshot data obtained from many students at a single instant (e.g., written responses to exam questions), (2) controlled experiments involving comparisons of snapshot data obtained under different circumstances, and (3) the collection and analysis of video data from student interviews and from groups of students working through materials in class.

Effective start/end date1/1/1512/31/19


  • National Science Foundation: $53,226.00


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