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Interactive-engagement vs. traditional methods: A 6,000-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses


There has been considerable recent effort to improve introductory physics courses, especially after 1985 when Halloun and Hestenes1 published a careful study using massive pre- and post-course testing of students in both calculus and non-calculus-based introductory physics courses at Arizona State University. Their conclusions were: (1) ‘‘...the student’s initial qualitative, common-sense beliefs about motion and...(its)... causes have a large effect on performance in physics, but conventional instruction induces only a small change in those beliefs.’’ (2) ‘‘Considering the wide differences in the teaching styles of the four professors... (involved in the study)... the basic knowledge gain under conventional instruction is essentially independent of the professor.’’ These outcomes were consistent with earlier findings of many researchers in physics education (see Refs. 1–8 and citations therein) which suggested that traditional passive student introductory physics courses, even those delivered by the most talented and popular instructors, imparted little conceptual understanding of Newtonian mechanics.

To what extent has the recent effort to improve introductory physics courses succeeded? In this article I report a survey of all quantitative pre-/post-test results known to me ~in time to be included in this report! which use the original Halloun–Hestenes Mechanics Diagnostic test (MD), the more recent Force Concept Inventory (FCI), and the problem-solving Mechanics Baseline (MB) test. Both the MD and FCI were designed to be tests of students’ conceptual understanding of Newtonian mechanics. One of their outstanding virtues is that the questions probe for conceptual understanding of basic concepts of Newtonian mechanics, in a way that is understandable to the novice who has never taken a physics course, while at the same time rigorous enough for the initiate.

Most physicists would probably agree that a low score on the FCI/MD test indicates a lack of understanding of the basic concepts of mechanics. However, there have been recent con11 and pro12 arguments as to whether a high FCI score indicates the attainment of a unified force concept. Nevertheless, even the detractors have conceded that ‘‘the FCI is one of the most reliable and useful physics tests currently available for introductory physics teachers’’ and that the FCI is ‘‘the best test currently available... to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction in introductory physics courses.’’ While waiting for the fulfillment of calls for the development of better tests or better analyses of existing tests,12 the present survey of published and unpublished classroom results may assist a much needed further improvement in introductory mechanics instruction in light of practical experience.

Reference Information

  • Author(s)

    Hake, R.

  • Journal

    American Journal of Physics

  • Pages


  • Title

    Interactive-engagement vs. traditional methods: A 6,000-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses

  • Volume


  • Year