You seem like a physicist

Title: Promoting high school students’ physics identity through explicit and implicit recognition
Authors: Jianlan Wang and Zahra Hazari
First author’s institution: Texas Tech University
Journal: Physical Review Physics Education Research 14 02011 (2018)


In order to meet the increasing demand for STEM majors, enrollment in STEM programs needs to increase and programs need to retain those students who do enroll. From the most recent data spanning the 2003/2004 academic year to the end of the 2008/2009 academic year, only 43% of freshman who planned to major in a physical science (such as physics) actually graduated with a degree in physical science. While much work has been done to investigate students’ performance and success in science, little work has been done in understanding students’ emotional states, which have been found to be critical for engagement and perseverance in science. The goal of today’s study is to understand high school students’ emotions towards physics based on how they are identified as physicists.

First, some background. When talking about identity in physics education research, identity refers to how people classify themselves in various categories according to pre-established social constructs such as gender, career, personality, etc. and external manifestations in terms of taking actions that align with the labels of self. For example, identifying as a physicist can mean doing what a physicist does. Developing this physics identity can bolster a student’s sense of belonging to physics and wanting to stay in physics and is done by focusing on three areas: interest (desire to learn physics), competence (self-perceived capabilities of successfully performing activities and understanding physics), and recognition (belief of being recognized by others as a physics person). Today’s paper looks specifically at the recognition part of identity.

Just like “knowledge” learning can be scaffolded, emotional learning can also be scaffolded, which means that specific supports are put in place for the students so that they can develop a skill just outside what their current capabilities allow. In terms of fostering recognition as a physicist, this could be an instructor explicitly acknowledging students’ abilities in physics (referred to as explicit recognition or ER) or implicitly by creating assignments or roles that demand those abilities (referred to as implicit recognition or IR).

To test whether an emotional scaffolding would engage students to identify as physicists, the researchers selected three Advanced Placement (AP) or Honors physics courses at three urban high schools in Hispanic communities. As negative shifts in attitudes toward physics are common in college and high school, the researchers believed efforts to promote physics identity should begin in high school. Near the midpoint of the academic year (December), the researchers conducted a two-day workshop with the instructors of the three courses to discuss specific strategies to promote physics identity development such as acknowledgement of students’ success, student-led exploration and discussion, high expectations conveyed to students, and activities that facilitate recognition such as creating a physics video to share with others. To measure the impacts of this workshop, the researchers administered an identity survey 6 times throughout the course, twice before the workshop and four times after. The questions on the survey were Likert scale, meaning the students selected a response on a 0 to 5 scale, where 0 meant not at all and 5 meant  very much. The survey included questions about interest in physics, competence in physics, and recognition as a physicist. The researchers then defined the identity score as the average response to all the items, the interest score as the average response to all the interest items, the competence score as the average of all the competence items, and the recognition score as the average of all the recognition items.

So what did the researchers find? First, they found that physics instruction had a non-positive impact on students’ interest and competence, but a non-negative impact on their sense of recognition (figure 1). The results also seem to depend on the instructor. The results seem to show a spike around Feb 2015, which may be the result of the instructors implementing some of the interventions learning during the workshop.

Fig 2
Figure 1:  Class averages on the identity survey (a), interest questions (b), competence questions (c), and recognition questions (d) for three different classes. The survey was conducted 6 times during the school year. (Fig 2 in paper).

To understand how the instructors implemented some of the recognition strategies described in the workshop, the researchers interviewed two students from each of the three classes. Many of the students recalled their teacher providing explicit recognition. Ashley, for example, noticed her teacher recognizing her as capable in physics and recommended she take the second year physics class while Nate’s teacher told him he was “ahead of where most people are in college,” which Nate said made him “really feel motivated to actually study further and see how far I can go.”

In addition, the students were asked about the implicit recognition activities that were part of the course, including inquiry labs and creating videos. How the inquiry labs were implemented seemed to make a difference. One student, Amanda, felt that the inquiry labs “helped [her] be more independent like with [her] work” and allowed her to be more creative, while another student, Mike, felt that by not providing the students with explicit instructions, the teacher “wasn’t doing his job.” Since Mike didn’t know what to do, he felt that he was incapable. He also felt the class was divided in a “capable” group who the teacher asked to explain their work to the class regularly and a “less capable” group who didn’t get called on as frequently, of which he was a part.

Likewise, the implementation of the video assignment seemed to affect how students viewed the assignment. In one course, the teacher asked the students to create a 5-8 minute in which they teach a physics concept to their family members. When doing this assignment, Ashley felt recognized as someone who does physics and even showed increased interest in science because she said she got to explain “why science is awesome,” while Amanda felt making the video “helped [her] know that [she] knew physics.”

In the other courses, the video assignment was to create a short, 20 second video that showed the students understood a physics concept. The students did not seem to see the video as something to help with their physic identities but as Nate said, just “a little project on the side” to “make something quick and fun.”

So what can we take away from this paper? First, whether a student decides to persist in physics depends on whether they identify as a physics person. This paper specifically focuses on the recognition aspect of identity and suggests when implemented properly, recognition strategies can help students feel recognized as someone who does physics, which may help them identify as physicists and become physicists. In this case, the implicit recognition activities should support the explicit recognition. Thus, if

Figures used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Featured image is figure 1 from today’s paper.

I am a physics graduate student at Michigan State University and the founder of PERbites. I’m interested in applying machine learning to analyze educational datasets and how students use computation in physics courses.

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