Representational consistency and the learning of forces in upper secondary school physics

University of Jyväskylä, Finland

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This dissertation focused on multiple representations in of the force concept. Sociocultural views of learning consider that learning takes place in a cultural context via social processes wherein language plays a central role. In addition to talk and text, the language of physics includes a diverse set of other representations, such as graphs, vectors, and equations. To learn physical language, and thus to solve physical problems successfully, students must become competent in multiple representations. This means that when solving a problem, students must be able to interpret and construct different representations, identify their similarities and distinctions, and move between these representations. The benefits of multiple representations have been known in physics education research, but there has not been an appropriate research instrument to study students’ representational consistency, i.e., their ability to interpret multiple representations. One contribution of this dissertation was to produce such instrument. The designed quantitative multiple choice test was administered to upper secondary school students (n = 322) in the Sub-studies of the dissertation. Data was also collected using other quantitative measures, open-ended exercises, teacher interviews, and video recordings. It was found that students’ (n = 133) pre-instructional representational consistency was related to their conceptual learning of forces. In addition, observed gender differences in learning of forces were diminished when pre-instructional representational consistency and scientific reasoning were controlled in statistical analysis. Further, an intervention study for multiple representations was conducted in two upper secondary mechanics courses, and it was found that students’ (n = 28) learning of forces seemed to increase compared to students who did not participate in the intervention (n = 22). However, this difference was not statistically significant.

The findings show that students’ representational skills are related to their learning. Hence, multiple representations should be included in physics lessons so that students learn to interpret and construct different representations and move between them. The important role of multiple representations should be emphasised in teacher training. The research instrument designed in this dissertation is a methodological tool for the community of physics researchers and instructors. Dozens of researchers around the world have already requested a copy of the test. From a theoretical perspective, the findings of this dissertation are in tune with sociocultural views of learning, wherein language (including physical representations) plays a central role. In addition, learning theories concentrating on individual views are relevant in explaining the findings.

Full reference of thesis

Nieminen, P. (2013). Representational consistency and the learning of forces in upper secondary school physics. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä.

Report Series in Jyväskylä Studies in Education, Psychology and Social Research ISSN 0075-4625; 470, ISBN 978-951-39-5216-7 (Book), ISBN 978-951-39-5217-4 (PDF)

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List of original publications

Nieminen, P., Savinainen, A., & Viiri, J. (2010). Force Concept Inventorybased multiple-choice test for investigating students’ representational consistency. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research 6(2), 020109.

Nieminen, P., Savinainen, A., & Viiri, J. (2012). Relations between representational consistency, conceptual understanding of the force concept, and scientific reasoning. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research 8(1), 010123.

Nieminen, P., Savinainen, A., & Viiri, J. (2013). Gender differences in learning of the force concept, representational consistency, scientific reasoning. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 11(5), 1137-1156.

Nieminen, P., Savinainen, A., Nurkka, N., & Viiri, J. (2012). An intervention for using multiple representations of mechanics in upper secondary school courses. In C. Bruguière, A. Tiberghien & P. Clément (Eds.), E-Book Proceedings of the ESERA 2011 Conference: Science learning and Citizenship. Part 3 (coeds. Marisa Michelini and Reinders Duit), (pp. 140-147) Lyon, France: European Science Education Research Association. ISBN: 978-9963-700-44-8


Pasi Nieminen
Department of Teacher Education
P.O. Box 35, 40014 University of Jyväskylä
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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