The Role of Representations in Physics Education

RICH mirrors

How can the different semiotic resource-systems we use in physics be coordinated and understood in order to improve the teaching and learning of physics

An understanding of the ways in which representations that are used in physics –  communicative practices made up of semiotic resource-systems such as graphs, diagrams, mathematics, spoken and written language, experimental routines, measurement equipment, etc. – work together to make learning possible is central to successful teaching and learning in physics.

Current projects

In this thread of research, we examine the roles that semiotic resource-systems such as language, mathematics, gestures, diagrams and sketches play in the teaching and learning of physics and in associated areas of science and engineering. An important epistemic aspect for our work is that there are critical constellations of semiotic resources that are needed to give access to all the Disciplinary Relevant Aspects that need to be discerned for particular parts of curricula.

Representation and meaning-making

In what ways do physics teachers constitute their practice with respect to:
(a) the semiotic resources that make up the educational communicative practices for given parts of curricula;
(b) using semiotic transduction and semiotic translation to make it possible to discern Disciplinary Relevant Aspects that are not directly visible in commonly used representations;
(c) making it possible for students to appropriately participate in the communicative practices of the discipline; and,
(d) using the Variation Theory of Learning in conjunction with semiotic resources to make learning possible.

Disciplinary literacy

We define disciplinary literacy as appropriate participation in the communicative practices of the discipline. How is this best achieved -- in what ways do students become disciplinary literate? How do teachers think about these issues and how do they bring this thinking into their teaching practice?

The role of conceptual understanding in mathematics and physics

How is the educational use of mathematics related to attaining a conceptual understanding of physics and what mathematical conceptual understanding is needed? In this research area we explore students' and teachers’ experiences of these issues.

Variation Theory in the teaching and learning of physics

The basic foundation of Variation Theory is that: To discern something means to be able to differentiate amongst the various aspects of some given phenomenon and hence be able to focus on the most relevant aspects. Without variation there can be no discernment. Without discernment there can be no learning. Our research here involves exploring how to optimize these ideas in ways that enhance learning outcomes in physics.


Collaboration and Practice

In our work with representations we have established collaborations with Linnaeus University Kalmar, Lund University and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden; Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany; University of Sydney, Australia; and, the University of Boulder Colorado, USA.

We have used our knowledge in this area to devise a number of successful interventions for learning in undergraduate physics.