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PER Research Tools

Many different research methods are used in PER. The tools needed to carry out different kinds of research are described briefly in this section. This page is meant to address questions often asked by those who are "going shopping" for new equipment. Detailed descriptions of research methods themselves are to be found elsewhere.



When administering surveys to students, two forms of data gathering exist: computer-based and paper-based. The easiest to gather (but hardest to create) is a computer-based survey in which entries are immediately put into a database. Many web resources are available to create and administer surveys; this includes publicly available websites or virtual learning environments (such as BlackBoard or Canvas). At this point, you can analyze data using methods described below.

When data are gathered on paper, several variations exist. One can have students fill out answer sheets, fill out answers on the question sheets themselves, or (when using multiple choice questions) one can use scanner forms which quickly allow many data points to be processed. Most universities and some high schools have readers for the many different types of scanner forms. (Notable are differences in some surveys: the FCI requires the 5-response scanner form, while the FMCE requires a 10-response answer form.)

Once data are collected, one can carry out a quick tally, sorting responses into piles which give a rough breakdown of student responses. This method is hard to use when sorting individual responses into multiple piles. A more detailed analysis requires using spreadsheet programs (Excel, Numbers, etc.), data analysis programs (R, SPSS, etc.), or other analysis tools (awk, Python, PERL, and so on). Many of these tools can be found for free as part of the movement, while others are part of common commercial office suites.

Interview video

For interviews that are videotaped (or, in a more limited sense, audiotaped), one should probably use the following tools:
  1. a camera using a film format that is easily transferred to a computer hard drive. Innovations in media are such that many cameras already write directly to hard drives in the open mp4 standard. Others write to DVD, still others use a tape format but can easily be transferred (via IEEE 1394 cables, also called iLink and firewire) to a hard drive.
  2. a private room with sufficient space for:
    • the camera mounted at the right angle to observe both interviewer and interviewee gestures
    • a table at which interviewer and interviewee can sit at right angles (not across from each other)
    • perhaps a second camera, that films what students write on any paper or their hands as they manipulate any objects used in the interview
    • a microphone that allows for better audio recording than most camera microphones
  3. a computer able to process video data
  4. transcription software to help markup data from video. Some ideas include:
    • a plain text editor... though this is the least helpful method
    • Transcriva (OS X only), which allows you to slow down audio speed to help in transcription
    • TAMS Analyzer (Text Analysis Markup System), which can be used to add markup to transcripts
    • NUDIST, a program similar to TAMS
Recorded interview tapes, particularly the video tapes, are amenable to different analyses. The most common analysis is to study the verbal utterances from the interviewed students (and sometimes from the interviewers as well) using the aforementioned transcription software. Additionally, students? non-verbal responses, such as facial expressions, gestures and other motor-sensory behaviors, can be analyzed from the video tapes. In case of limited resources where only audio tapes are available, a researcher can resort to field notes for recording students? non-verbal responses. However, field notes may not be completely immune to subjectivity.

Classroom video

The problems of classroom video are similar to those of interview video (steps 3 and 4 above are shared, for example), but the set-up is different. A successful classroom video setup requires that more students be taped and that the audio signal be separated from the rest of the class. The most effective system is to run a microphone cable from the camera to a location that is built into the table at which students are sitting. By building a cage around the mic and mounting it in a way that isolates it from sound traveling through the table, one can gather data mostly from that one table, without hearing audio from other tables.
Resources for starting to videotape in the classroom

Other high-technology devices

With the rapid development of new technologies, PER is entering an unprecedented era. Some high-tech devices, such as eye-tracker, have been introduced into physics education research field to closely monitor students? cognitive behaviors during their encounters with physics problems.

Take the eye-tracker for an example. It is a device that records the movement of a human subject?s gaze in response to external stimuli. Using an eye-tracker, a researcher is able to determine when, where and for how long the subject stops his gaze. So far commercial eye-trackers have been available on the market for a while, and the cost is still fairly high. Detailed information, including supporting analysis software and consumer training, should be obtained from the vendor.