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The formation of successful physics students: Discourse and identity perspectives on university physics
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics.ORCID iD: 0000-0001-8180-5369
2018 (English)Doctoral thesis, comprehensive summary (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

In university physics education, unequal student participation has always been an issue. An example is the fact that men constitute 70–80% of the student body in most countries. In recent years, physics education research has started to explore issues of participation, diversity, and identity, but more research and theoretical and methodological development is needed. The work presented in this thesis adopts a discursive perspective on students’ physics identity, building on developments in gender studies and related fields. Focusing on several important steps in physics education, the study explores what it means to become a physicist by asking how norms about being a successful physics student are constructed in the discourses of the education. The methodology is qualitative and interpretative, using participant observation and interviews to explore classroom discourse and student narratives. These theoretical and methodological tools combined with a detailed focus on physics education practice, provide a framework for a deeper understanding of identity in physics. A general conclusion of this study is that physics courses, when taught from a narrow physics perspective, may limit the possibilities for identification for many students. For example, engineering students on less physics-oriented programmes had difficulties seeing electromagnetism as significant for their vocational identity. Similar results occurred in quantum mechanics, where a strong focus on calculating can alienate some students. Concurrent with the particular appeal that quantum mechanics can have in attracting students to physics, a mismatch between expectations and course practice can cause an identity crisis for students investing in an identity as a quantum physicist. For physics master’s students, finding a place in physics meant negotiating norms about intelligence and “nerdiness”. These common and gendered stereotypical attributions for physicists took on specific significance in relation to subject choice in physics. More theoretical and pure physics directions were implicitly accorded higher status and seen as requiring more intelligence, but at the same time could also be positioned as more nerdy. The study’s outcomes provide input to physics instructors and departments who want to develop more inclusive and diverse physics education, as well as theoretical and methodological resources for further research.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2018. , p. 139
Series
Digital Comprehensive Summaries of Uppsala Dissertations from the Faculty of Science and Technology, ISSN 1651-6214 ; 1706
National Category
Physical Sciences Educational Sciences Gender Studies
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-357341ISBN: 978-91-513-0413-7 (print)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-357341DiVA, id: diva2:1239873
Public defence
2018-10-05, Häggsalen, 10132, Ångströmlaboratoriet, Lägerhyddsvägen 1, Uppsala, 09:15 (English)
Opponent
Supervisors
Available from: 2018-09-13 Created: 2018-08-19 Last updated: 2018-10-02
List of papers
1. Gender gap or program gap?: Students’ negotiations of study practice in a course in electromagnetism
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Gender gap or program gap?: Students’ negotiations of study practice in a course in electromagnetism
2016 (English)In: Physical Review Physics Education Research, ISSN 2469-9896, Vol. 12, no 2, article id 020112Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

This study of achievement differences, as reflected by course grades, on a third-semester electromagnetism course at a Swedish research university was motivated by instructor concerns about gender inequalities. Quantitative analysis showed a gender gap in course grades between female and male students for the period of fall 2007 to spring 2013. Dynamics behind this gap were explored through interpretative discourse analysis on interviews of 21 students who had recently passed the course. A recurring pattern was identified in the interviews. Students described studying electromagnetism as either studying to pass or studying to learn. Their choice of practice was influenced by the significance recognized in the course, which primarily was discussed in relation to program affiliation. Students stressed that perceived differences, in their study context, were larger between students affiliated with different programs than between male and female students on the same program. This was supported by quantitative analysis of course grades in relation to study programs, where the grade difference between female and male students on the same program in most cases were not statistically significant. The gender gap in grades for the whole course was related to different achievements on different programs. Programs further from the discipline of physics had lower mean grades and also enrolled a larger fraction of female students. Society-wide gender differences in interest and study choice are reflected in the grades on this single course. These results displace the achievement gap from the level of individuals to that of programs, and the gender gap from a difference in achievement to a difference in study choice. We discuss the implications of this shift of perspective in relation to gender differences for both research and teaching.

National Category
Physical Sciences Educational Sciences
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-267307 (URN)10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.12.020112 (DOI)000393396900010 ()
Available from: 2015-11-20 Created: 2015-11-20 Last updated: 2018-08-19Bibliographically approved
2. “Shut up and calculate”: the available discursive positions in quantum physics courses
Open this publication in new window or tab >>“Shut up and calculate”: the available discursive positions in quantum physics courses
2018 (English)In: Cultural Studies of Science Education, ISSN 1871-1502, E-ISSN 1871-1510, Vol. 13, no 1, p. 205-226Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Educating new generations of physicists is often seen as a matter of attracting good students, teaching them physics and making sure that they stay at the university. Sometimes, questions are also raised about what could be done to increase diversity in recruitment. Using a discursive perspective, in this study of three introductory quantum physics courses at two Swedish universities, we instead ask what it means to become a physicist, and whether certain ways of becoming a physicist and doing physics is privileged in this process. Asking the question of what discursive positions are made accessible to students, we use observations of lectures and problem solving sessions together with interviews with students to characterize the discourse in the courses. Many students seem to have high expectations for the quantum physics course and generally express that they appreciate the course more than other courses. Nevertheless, our analysis shows that the ways of being a “good quantum physics student” are limited by the dominating focus on calculating quantum physics in the courses. We argue that this could have negative consequences both for the education of future physicists and the discipline of physics itself, in that it may reproduce an instrumental “shut up and calculate”-culture of physics, as well as an elitist physics education. Additionally, many students who take the courses are not future physicists, and the limitation of discursive positions may also affect these students significantly.

Keywords
Physics, Higher education, Quantum physics, Discourse, Identity
National Category
Physical Sciences Educational Sciences Gender Studies
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-267306 (URN)10.1007/s11422-016-9742-8 (DOI)000429417900012 ()
Available from: 2015-11-20 Created: 2015-11-20 Last updated: 2018-08-19Bibliographically approved
3. Analyzing discourse and identity in physics education: Methodological considerations
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Analyzing discourse and identity in physics education: Methodological considerations
2016 (English)In: 2016 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings / [ed] Dyan L. Jones, Lin Ding, and Adrienne L. Traxler, American Association of Physics Teachers , 2016, p. 180-183Conference paper, Published paper (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Physics Education Research has for a long time primarily been concerned with helping students to learn physics and to “think like a physicist.” This paper explores the emerging subfield where students’ identity development is analyzed to examine processes of “becoming a physicist” in a wider sense. Drawing on sociocultural theories and methodologies, and specifically analyzing identity and discourse, I focus on what happens when students with differing outlooks on physics encounter advanced physics courses. A discourse analytical framework allows one to inquire into the messages about “who one should be as a physicist” communicated to students during courses. This enables a discussion of what physicist identities are made possible for physics students. In this way, a discourse perspective can be one way of analyzing identities in physics without taking the norms of the discipline for granted.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
American Association of Physics Teachers, 2016
Series
PERC Proceedings, ISSN 1539-9028
National Category
Physical Sciences Gender Studies Educational Sciences
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-312152 (URN)10.1119/perc.2016.pr.040 (DOI)000393035800043 ()9781931024303 (ISBN)
Conference
Physics Education Research Conference (PERC) 2016, July 20-21, 2016, Sacramento, CA, USA
Available from: 2017-01-05 Created: 2017-01-05 Last updated: 2018-08-19Bibliographically approved
4. Undergraduate quantum mechanics: lost opportunities for engaging motivated students?
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Undergraduate quantum mechanics: lost opportunities for engaging motivated students?
2018 (English)In: European journal of physics, ISSN 0143-0807, E-ISSN 1361-6404, Vol. 39, no 2, article id 025705Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Quantum mechanics is widely recognised as an important and difficult subject, and many studies have been published focusing on students' conceptual difficulties. However, the sociocultural aspects of studying such an emblematic subject have not been researched to any large extent. This study explores students' experiences of undergraduate quantum mechanics using qualitative analysis of semi-structured interview data. The results inform discussions about the teaching of quantum mechanics by adding a sociocultural dimension. Students pictured quantum mechanics as an intriguing subject that inspired them to study physics. The study environment they encountered when taking their first quantum mechanics course was however not always as inspiring as expected. Quantum mechanics instruction has commonly focused on the mathematical framework of quantum mechanics, and this kind of teaching was also what the interviewees had experienced. Two ways of handling the encounter with a traditional quantum mechanics course were identified in the interviews; either students accept the practice of studying quantum mechanics in a mathematical, exercise-centred way or they distance themselves from these practices and the subject. The students who responded by distancing themselves experienced a crisis and disappointment, where their experiences did not match the way they imagined themselves engaging with quantum mechanics. The implications of these findings are discussed in relation to efforts to reform the teaching of undergraduate quantum mechanics.

National Category
Physical Sciences Educational Sciences Gender Studies
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-341687 (URN)10.1088/1361-6404/aa9b42 (DOI)000423670100002 ()
Available from: 2018-02-12 Created: 2018-02-12 Last updated: 2018-08-19Bibliographically approved
5. Negotiating intelligence, nerdiness, and status in physics master’s studies
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Negotiating intelligence, nerdiness, and status in physics master’s studies
2018 (English)In: Research in science education, ISSN 0157-244X, E-ISSN 1573-1898Article in journal (Refereed) Epub ahead of print
Abstract [en]

Motivated by widespread concerns for representation and equity in physics education, this study investigates negotiations of identity positions of master’s students in physics. The goal is to explore how sociocultural features of physics can structure the possibilities for becoming a physicist. Interviews with international master’s students in physics were analyzed focusing on perceived norms about physics and how students responded to and negotiated these in crafting a position as competent physicists-to-be. The results show how physics master’s students from varying backgrounds have to negotiate stereotypes of intelligence and nerdiness, as well as an implicit ranking of physics specializations. The stereotype that physicists are intelligent and nerdy is further complicated in physics studies, as some specializations—the more pure and theoretical—are viewed as more intellectually demanding and are in this way accorded a higher status. Students on these specializations are simultaneously seen as more intelligent and more nerdy, while a perception that students who choose other subjects do this just because they are not good enough to do theoretical physics is perpetuated. These notions become significant in relation to western society’s high regard of authentic intelligence and idolization of geniuses, ideas that can serve as powerful ideals in physics. This study gives novel insight about how well-known norms and stereotypes about physics come to matter in physics master’s students’ negotiations to become recognized as competent physicists.

Keywords
Social identity, Physics education, Graduate education, Equity, Discourse
National Category
Physical Sciences Gender Studies Educational Sciences
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-357340 (URN)10.1007/s11165-018-9786-8 (DOI)
Available from: 2018-08-15 Created: 2018-08-15 Last updated: 2018-11-16Bibliographically approved

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