A PhD in Psychology, Student news

Refining the focus of a PhD

Katherine Langford, a PhD student in the School, discusses the process through which she refined the focus of her PhD and settled on the most appropriate research methods for her project.

When I applied to study my PhD, it never occurred to me how tricky it would be to pin down what exactly I am studying. I am interested in how students develop an understanding of Physics. Teaching any subject has its difficulties, but Physics is recognised as being particularly prone to misconceptions. Students often have their own ideas about the way the world works and this effects the way they learn. For example, a teacher I interviewed said “Electricity is something that [students are] aware of from a very early age and they’re aware that they plug things in and it will charge… They’ve kind of sorted out what happens in their mind and then we try and tell them something else. They’re like “no, I don’t like that.” I don’t know what it is. It’s almost like it’s too familiar to them at such a young age that they don’t fully understand it.” 

Students often reject what they are taught by their teachers if it conflicts with their own ideas. I am particularly interested in researching how students’ understanding of these tricky Physics topics develops. Unfortunately, students are often unaware that they have an incorrect understanding of a topic, as they think that their personal theory is correct. This poses a challenge as it means I cannot simply ask students which topics they find tricky, as often they simply won’t know.

I cannot research how students’ understanding of the whole of Physics develops because it is such a vast area. It would be impossible to cover it all, even superficially, during one PhD. So which Physics topics should I choose? Which are the most important? I could select the topics I want to investigate based on past research and simply research the topics I find most interesting, but there are three substantial problems with doing this. Firstly, that would be a very subjective way to select my topics. I need a systematic selection process to justify my choices. Secondly, if I base my choice solely on past research then there is a danger that my research will largely replicate someone else’s research. As I need to conduct an original piece of research for my PhD, this would be problematic. Thirdly, a lot of research in this area is quite old (some of it was done several decades ago), so can I even be certain that it is still relevant?

A solution was to speak to Physics teachers and ask them which topics they think I should be studying. This is more objective than me selecting the topics myself, it also means that I am not simply replicating other people’s research and it will ensure that the topics selected are still problematic for modern students and in need of further research. The six Physics teachers I have interviewed have had no difficulty in identifying Physics topics that students struggle with. Electricity, forces and radioactivity in particular were the topics which came up again and again when interviewing different teachers. Interestingly, teachers from different schools also identified similar problems within a topic, such as having difficulty understanding that there is empty space in an atom, rather than it being filled with air.

However, it was more difficult for the teachers to identify precisely whythese topics are tricky. I am currently in the process of analysing the interviews I conducted with the Physics teachers and I have so far identified 40 different factors which the teachers think contribute to why students find these topics difficult. These include the students thinking that Physics is too hard so they don’t engage with the subject, that students find the maths element difficult or even that misconceptions have been introduced by past teachers, particularly in primary school. Some of the most frequently occurring suggestions for why students find topics difficult were that the Physics concepts are counterintuitive, abstract and hard to picture and that language causes misconceptions (for example, the nucleus of a cell and the nucleus of an atom are often confused even though they are very different things). The teachers did not identify one single overarching reason why these Physics topics are so difficult for students to learn or why students sometimes reject what they are taught by their teachers. Sometimes the answer I got when I asked teachers why their students struggle with a concept was “I don’t know”, even from very experienced teachers. Clearly it is a complicated issue.

This is made even more complex as students can have a surface understanding of a topic where they have memorised definitions and how to solve equations, but not actually understand what they have memorised. They do not have a deep understanding of the topic where they are able to apply their knowledge to solve novel problems. This makes it tricky to know how much a student fully understands a topic as they can often successfully use scientific language and memorised definitions even if they don’t understand them. Some studies have shown that teachers can overestimate how much their students understand.

Therefore, I potentially cannot rely entirely on teachers’ perceptions of their students’ understanding. I will still need to speak to students to investigate their understanding of Physics. This has led me to use what is called a multiphase mixed-methods approach. It will involve several separate phases of research utilising different research methods, including interviews and statistical analysis. I have nearly completed the first phase involving interviewing Physics teachers to select which tricky Physics topics I will study. For the second phase, I intend to run workshops with Physics teachers and interview students to further break down the tricky Physics topics. This information will then be used in the third phase to create a quiz to examine how students’ understanding of the selected tricky Physics topics develops.

The problem with conducting multiphase research is that it is much more time consuming and has resulted in me needing more training than if I had chosen to do a single-phase study. I am currently in the third year of my part-time PhD at the Open University (admittedly, I have had to take a study-break due to ill health), but I am now only just at the point of being able to select exactly which Physics topics I am going to research. However, using a multi-phase method does have several advantages. In particular, it is allowing me to combine teachers’ experience of teaching Physics with my knowledge of research methods, so that my research will be attempting to find solutions to real-world problems that have been identified by teachers. It has been fascinating and insightful speaking to Physics teachers. Excitingly, one of the tricky topics that the teachers identified (radioactivity) has had very little research done in that area regarding student understanding, so by using this approach my research is already yielding some results that I did not expect. It has been time consuming narrowing down the topic I am researching in this way, but hopefully the results will be worth it. 

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