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How we do research

UMaine PERL

  • How we do research

Research methods in the UMaine PERL:

(Comment written April, 2009: This document was written before 2002 and needs some updating as our methods have changed.)

The cycle of PER

Physics education research, as practiced at the University of Maine, is focused primarily on identifying the specific conceptual learning and reasoning that students go through when trying to learn physics.

Results from education research are used to guide the modifications of existing materials or the development of new instructional methods and materials to specifically help the students learn the physics better.

Physics education research, by its nature, results in an integration of research with curriculum design and instruction. In addition, it helps us gain basic insight into how people think and how we can make sense of the learning process.

Research methods


We use both quantitative and qualitative research methods. Our data consist of observations of student work and student responses to interview and written questions. Finding systematic elements of student thinking within our data guides our investigations into the process of learning and the evaluation of curriculum materials.

Informal interviews with students in office hours and during class together with classroom observation (often carried out in very systematic form) provide one form of data about student learning and interaction with the curriculum.

We use formal interviews in which students are usually asked to predict outcomes and perform specific tasks. These interviews are video-taped, transcribed and analyzed. During an interview, the interviewer can ask students follow-up questions that give a detailed view of a student's reasoning. By "chasing down" student thinking during the interview, a researcher can gain a highly detailed view of how students approach the material we wish to teach them.

Insights into student thinking which are obtained in interviews are often used to guide the design of questions administered on pretests, post-tests and examinations. The data from these written assessments is then analyzed using quantitative statistical methods.

The results from both the qualitative and the quantitative analyses provide a basis for developing or modifying materials and teaching strategies.

This type of research is content specific and, as such, requires researchers who are well trained in physics. Graduate students who choose physics education as their research topic are required to meet all the requirements of a PhD in physics including the completion of core physics course work and passing the comprehensive physics examination. Interested in joining us?