Study: Girls respond to new physics lessons

Getting girls to study physics at university remains a challenge Keystone

Many pupils find physics hard because they misunderstand the fundamental concepts. A new teaching method developed by Zurich researchers could change this. Intelligent girls in particular can benefit.

This content was published on March 28, 2018 - 11:41

“Our research shows that when good students don’t understand physics, it’s mostly due to the teaching methods,” said Elsbeth Stern, Professor of Empirical Learning and Instruction Research at the Federal Institute of Technology ZurichExternal link (ETH Zurich) in a statement released on MondayExternal link.

A study conducted by her institute and published in the most recent Journal of Educational PsychologyExternal link has shown, however, that even small changes to lessons can have a big effect.

The new method makes pupils grapple with their prior knowledge, which is especially important for physics, said Stern. “In almost no other subject do intuition and reality lie so far apart as in physics. Our everyday experiences do not help,” she said.

Learning formulas by heart is not enough – understanding the concepts behind them is key, she said. Many pupils, even the best ones, have to make a huge mental effort to understand, for example, force, mass and acceleration.

The teaching unit developed at the ETH Zurich’s STEM learning centre lets pupils fail in a targeted way, through giving them a task they cannot solve with their existing knowledge. Afterwards the teacher explains the underlying concept – or lets students work out the principles themselves using different examples, before giving them the formula. 

The method was tested at academic secondary school level – gymnasium, the school which leads to university entrance – on 172 pupils in German-speaking Switzerland, on 18 lessons on Newtonian mechanics. Half of the eight classes were taught as usual and half using the new method. The pupils were tested before the lessons, after, and then three months later.

Gender gap

The results: pupils under the new method not only improved their conceptual understanding; they also became better at calculations. Stern and her group found the biggest difference in performance was in intelligent girls – with the new method, they significantly caught up the boys. The gender gap did not disappear entirely, but it became much smaller.

The physics gender gap is a well-known phenomenonExternal link: male students still outperform female students in physics in secondary school, and few women go on to study it and other science subjects at university – as noted by the OECDExternal link. There have been several initiatives in Switzerland to encourage women to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), particularly as there is a skills shortage in these areas.

The proportion of physics underachievers (low performance despite high intelligence) is much higher among female than male pupils, as previous research by Stern and her team has shown. They have pointed to evidence that conventional teaching methods for physics may “prevent even more female than male students from developing their potential” and that a focus on deeper conceptual understanding would be beneficial for girls.

There is also some evidence to suggest that expectations of girls are different. A previous ETH Zurich studyExternal link, conducted in Switzerland, Germany and Austria, found that secondary physics teachers with little teaching experience tended to hand out poorer grades to girls than boys for the same performance.

Lessons learned

In terms of the present study, Stern hailed the results as positive, but said the teaching unit’s effects could be increased even further. Her next step is to fine-tune the method with the teachers involved. She also hopes the research will lead to a rethink in physics lessons.

“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.”

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