New physics lessons help girls catch up

March 26, 2018 by Michael Walther, ETH Zurich
With Stern's new method the gender gap became much smaller (Symbolic photograph). Credit: Colourbox

Many school pupils fail at physics because they misunderstand the fundamental concepts. A new teaching method can change this – ETH researchers have now proven its effect. It particularly helps intelligent girls to learn more effectively.

What is the difference between mass and weight? How is force defined in ? Very few school pupils can properly explain fundamental physics concepts, not even the most intelligent. The problem is not with the pupils, says Elsbeth Stern, Professor of Empirical Learning and Instruction Research at ETH Zurich: "Our research shows that when good students don't understand physics, it's mostly due to the methods."

A study conducted by the research team led by Sarah I Hofer and Elsbeth Stern has now shown that even small changes to the lessons can have a big effect. The results have been published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Targeted failure

The method is based on getting the pupils to grapple with their prior knowledge. This is particularly important in physics, says Stern: "In almost no other subject do intuition and reality lie so far apart as in physics. Our everyday experiences do not help." Understanding physics concepts requires a huge mental effort from pupils. Learning formulas by heart isn't enough: "Plenty of school pupils know the formula 'force equals mass times acceleration', but they have a false understanding of the concepts of force, mass and acceleration." Only those who recognise these misconceptions are ready to understand physics.

The teaching unit developed at ETH Zurich's STEM learning centre begins with these misconceptions. For example, it lets the pupils fail in a specific way: they receive a task that they cannot solve with their existing knowledge. Only after they have attempted it does the explain the underlying . Or they let the students work out the principles for themselves using different examples before they are given the formula.

Successful in-school test

Stern and her group have now shown that the method works in regular school lessons as well as in the laboratory. In an experiment, the researchers demonstrated that pupils performed better in physics when they were taught using the method developed at the STEM centre. They not only improved their conceptual understanding; they also became better at calculations.

Stern and her group found the biggest difference in performance in particularly intelligent girls – with the new method, they significantly caught up the boys. The gender gap did not disappear entirely, but it became much smaller.

For the experiment, the team worked with experienced physics teachers to develop a teaching unit with 18 lessons about Newtonian mechanics. Four secondary teachers then spent a day being trained in the new method before teaching parallel classes with the conventional method and with the new method. The effectiveness was measured with three tests, one before the teaching unit, one just after it was completed and one three months later.

Rethinking physics teaching

The results are very positive, but this is only the beginning, says Stern: "I am sure that we can further increase the effects of the teaching unit." She next wants to fine-tune the with the teachers involved in the experiment. She also hopes that the study will help people rethink their approach: "We will now turn even more confidently to those physics teachers who still primarily teach the subject using calculation exercises. That approach does not work."

Explore further: Grouping students into ability-based sets holds back less able pupils

More information: Sarah I. Hofer et al. Enhancing physics learning with cognitively activating instruction: A quasi-experimental classroom intervention study., Journal of Educational Psychology (2018). DOI: 10.1037/edu0000266

Related Stories

More concepts, fewer facts

June 7, 2017

ETH biology lecturers have tested secondary school leavers and students to determine their knowledge of biological concepts. And they have drawn some sobering conclusions: many misunderstand the concepts, such as the importance ...

English sinks in better with pop music

April 3, 2014

Recent research from the University of Twente shows that studying the English language is easier for pupils when pop music is being used. In addition, the pupils are more motivated as a result. The teaching method ...

Grammar teaching leaves children confused, research shows

December 15, 2017

Children can be left confused and unable to write accurate sentences because of "uncertain" grammar teaching, experts have warned. But confident teachers can enable students to use their grammar knowledge to help them craft ...

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 26, 2018
Why is it GIRLS are always characterized as CATCHING UP? And they just never seem to.

What's the reason they couldn't keep pace with boys doing it the same way boys do it, but for some reason need a DIFFERENT APPROACH to learning these educational skills than boys?

Sounds like the researcher is knocking himself out to give a selected group a biased sociological excuse for their inability to keep up with male peers?

I remember my first semester physics class in college was made up of one third women, the 2nd semester class was diminished to 1/10 women, so how did that happen? Oh, I get Mr Author, women need to be taught differently or they just don't get it? Calculus for women? Physics for women? Ok, then let's set up those two separate gender classes & see what happens when the separate groups take exactly the same final exam at the end of a semester.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 27, 2018
The real reason girls and young women don't stay in physics is because boys/young men like Benni here are condescending, mean, and socially ignorant in the classroom and outside it. Why would they choose physics as a career to be surrounded by more Bennis, who act as if females are inferior?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.