International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 21-23 July 2014
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In a liminal space: learning to ‘think like a physicist’

Honjiswa Conana, Department of Physics, University of the Western Cape, South Afric, cconana@uwc.ac.za

Delia Marshall, Department of Physics, University of the Western Cape, South Africa dmarshall@uwc.ac.za

Jennifer Case, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cape Town, South Africa jcase@uct.ac.za


The notions of threshold concepts and liminality (Land, 2014) provide a useful framing for conceptualizing introductory physics learning. From this perspective, physics learning is viewed not merely in terms of discrete concepts to be understood, but in terms of taking on new ways of thinking, which lead to important epistemic shifts. In this paper, we present close-up qualitative research conducted in the context of a ‘reformed’ curriculum, explicitly designed to help students access the disciplinary discourse of physics and to begin to ‘think like a physicist’. The paper examines the extent to which this curriculum and its associated pedagogy make a difference to students’ approach to physics tasks in their introductory course.

The paper draws on theoretical tools from Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) (Maton, 2009) - in particular the constructs of semantic density and semantic gravity – to characterize the pedagogical practices and student learning in this ‘reformed’ physics course and to compare this with a more traditional, mainstream introductory physics course. The LCT tools allow for the plotting of ‘semantic profiles’ that characterize the movement between the concrete and the abstract, as well as the use of semantically dense representations, not only in the pedagogical modes across the two courses, but also in students’ approaches to problem tasks.

The findings suggest that the different pedagogical practices in the two courses have a bearing on the way that students approach physics problem tasks; as students grappled in the liminal space of learning to approach physics tasks ‘like a physicist’, students in the ‘reformed’ course tended to adopt a greater modelling approach to their tasks, and use qualitative physics representations in more sophisticated ways. There are more frequent shifts in semantic gravity and semantic density than the mainstream students.

The study also follows students’ progress into their subsequent year of study, showing that the more explicit modes of modelling and problem solving that are developed in the ‘reformed’ course are not necessarily carried into the senior years of the physics programme. Finally, the paper discusses the usefulness of the LCT tools for highlighting ways in which curriculum and pedagogy might better support epistemological access to undergraduate science studies.

Link to Full Paper (If submitted)

Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

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