High School Students’ Conceptual Coherence of Qualitative Knowledge in the Case of the Force Concept

University of Joensuu, Finland

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This study consists of a theoretical and an empirical part. The theoretical research aims were to characterise students’ conceptual coherence of qualitative knowledge in the case of the force concept, and how it can be evaluated. Students’ conceptual coherence can be divided into three aspects: representational coherence, which is the ability to use multiple representations and move between them; contextual coherence, i.e. the ability to apply concepts in a variety of contexts (familiar and novel), and conceptual framework coherence, which addresses the relations - integration and differentiation - between relevant concepts. Certain groupings of the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE), and the Test for Understanding Graphs - Kinematics (TUG-K) questions were used to probe students’ contextual and representational coherence of the force concept. Written extended response questions and interviews were also used in addition to multiple choice tests to provide complementary data. The empirical part of this dissertation consists of designing a teaching approach (Interactive Conceptual Instruction (ICI)) and teaching sequences for kinematics and the force concept. The ICI approach involves several features or components: conceptual focus (concepts are introduced and rehearsed before quantitative problem solving), the use of multiple representations in varying contexts, classroom interactions (peer instruction), research-based materials, use of texts (reading before formal treatment), and concept maps. The teaching sequence for the force concept emphasises forces as interactions. An empirical study was conducted to test the effectiveness of the ICI teaching. The study involved two pilot and two study groups in Kuopio Lyseo High School: Preparatory International Baccalaureate (Pre-IB) students (age 16; npilot = 22 and nstudy = 23) and Finnish National Syllabus students (age 17; npilot = 52 and nstudy = 49). The pilot groups followed the ICI approach without a focus on forces as interactions whereas the study groups followed the ICI approach with a focus on forces as interactions. The study groups were taught to think of forces as interactions through the systematic use of a modified version of the ‘Symbolic Representation of Interactions’, which provided a bridging representation to more abstract free-body diagrams. Otherwise, introductory mechanics was taught in a similar manner to the pilot and study groups (i.e., the same teacher - author AS - taught all the groups using the same textbooks, with generally similar exercises and activies, and the same ICI approach). Average normalized gain (Hake gain) and effect size were used as measures of the practical significance of the overall FCI results. Hake gains for the pilot and study groups fall in the middle or upper end of the ‘medium gain region’ ( 0.3< ()<0.7): they were between 0.45 and 0.59. The effect sizes were well above the ‘high boundary of 0.8’: they were between 1.1. and 2.6. These indices show that the effect of both types of ICI teaching had practical significance at least as measured by the overall FCI results. The most impressive conceptual gains were made in Newton’s first law in verbal representation, Newton’s third law in verbal representation, and contact force in verbal representation. In almost all these cases Hake gains were above 0.50 and effect sizes above 1.1. The ICI teaching enhanced the contextual and representational coherence of the force concept in all the probed dimensions of the force concept for the pilot and study groups. In most dimensions the changes were also statistically significant (). In general, the most notable improvement in contextual and representational coherence occured in Newton’s first law (all groups) and Newton’s third law (the study groups) in verbal representation. In most groups, fewer students reached contextual coherence of Newton’s first law in diagrammatic representation. It can also be concluded that Newton’s second law proved to be harder for all groups than the first law. The study groups had much better results in Newton’s third law. More students’ in the study groups exhibited contextual coherence in Newton’s third law after teaching than in the pilot groups (the differences were statistically significant:). The differences were also practically significant: e.g. the effect size for the FCI questions addressing Newton’s third law for the Pre-IB study group was extremely high (3.3). In other dimensions of the force concept the results are not conclusive: the Pre-IB study group did not do better than the Pre-IB pilot group in most of the dimensions and representations of the force, whereas the Finnish study group was better than the Finnish pilot group in the majority of the dimensions and representations of the force concept. Hence, it cannot be concluded that focusing on forces as interactions necessarily enhances students’ conceptual coherence of the force concept in dimensions other than Newton’s third law.

Key words: teaching of physics, force concept, conceptual coherence, the Force Concept Inventory

Full reference for the thesis

Antti Savinainen*; High School Students’ Conceptual Coherence of Qualitative Knowledge in the Case of the Force Concept - University of Joensuu. Department of Physics. Dissertations 41, 2004 - 106 p.

[1] A link to the online version of this dissertation is provided in http://kotisivu.mtv3.fi/physics  (Click “Downloads”).

Some references

This thesis is based on the following peer-reviewed articles, which are available online at http://kotisivu.mtv3.fi/physics:

Savinainen, A. and Scott, P. (2002a). The Force Concept Inventory: a tool for monitoring student learning. Physics Education, 37, pp. 45-52.

Savinainen, A. and Scott, P. (2002b). Using the Force Concept Inventory to monitor student learning and to plan teaching. Physics Education, 37, pp. 53-58.

Savinainen, A. and Viiri, J. (2003). Using the Force Concept Inventory to Characterise Students’ Conceptual Coherence. In L. Haapasalo and K. Sormunen (Eds.): Towards Meaningful Mathematics and Science Education, Proceeding on the IXX Symposium of Finnish Mathematics and Science Education Research Association. Bulletin of Faculty of Education, No 86, University of Joensuu, pp. 142-152.

Savinainen, A. and Viiri, J. (2004). A Case Study Evaluating Students’ Representational Coherence of Newton’s First and Second Laws. In J. Marx, S. Franklin and K. Cummings (Eds.): Proceedings of the Physics Education Research Conference, Madison, Wisconsin. In press.

Savinainen, A., Scott, P. and Viiri, J. (2004). Using a bridging representation and social interactions to foster conceptual change: Designing and evaluating an instructional sequence for Newton’s third law. Accepted for publication in Science Education


Antti Savinainen
Kuopio Lyseo High School,
Puijonkatu 18, Kuopio,
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 
Website: http://kotisivu.mtv3.fi/physics 

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