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This chapter describes the events and issues that have led to the current educational environment in which quantum mechanics is taught, and describes the research setting and the preliminary research project plan. The philosophical and methodological perspectives that influenced the design and analysis phases, and guided the researcher in exploring the links between the social environments and the conceptual physics aspects of the research questions, are then discussed.

A detailed description of the research tools employed in the study, and the fully developed research plan, complete the chapter.


This study is concerned with student learning in the area of quantum mechanics. As highlighted in Chapter 2, research seeking to understand how students learn quantum mechanics has only recently been conducted, and the majority of published work has focused on teaching specific ideas and concepts. As a discipline, quantum mechanics is continually undergoing change as educational systems and student expectations are changing, and new technologies are increasingly underpinned by the concepts of quantum mechanics.

The contemporary educational environment is quite different from when quantum mechanics was first formulated in the early 1900s, necessarily affecting the learning process. The development of quantum mechanics as a distinct discipline took 30 years, and the scientists who formulated it were guided by a series of unanswered questions raised by unexplained experimental findings. Physicists, themselves highly skilled analytical mathematicians, debated and refined theories which were based on contentious philosophical and mathematical principles. These debates were regularly reported in newspaper articles worldwide, and therefore any student who studied the material during and soon after this period did so in the context of discussing a contemporary and immediately relevant issue.

As G.P. Thomson remarked during a lecture at a Symposium on the History of Modern Physics in 1961:

It is difficult for a young physicist ... to realise the state of our science in the early 1920s ... it was not just that the old theories of light and mechanics had failed. On the contrary. You could say that they had succeeded in regions to which they could hardly have expected to apply, but they succeeded erratically. ... And over the whole subject brooded the mysterious figure of h.” (French and Taylor, 1990)

During the succeeding 60 years, quantum mechanics has become an accepted and successful theory, no different to any other topic in the current undergraduate curriculum. However, the social context in which this material is being learned has significantly changed. Even though, the subject is still not completely understood, it is no longer the grand intellectual challenge it seemed to be in the 1920s. Arguments and discussions concerning quantum mechanics presented in popular science books and articles are lacking in curricula, and texts seldom dwell upon such discussions. The links between philosophy and quantum mechanics are sparse and only briefly discussed in the senior years of undergraduate studies and are generally presented as digressions during lectures.

Consequently, modern students are expected to learn quantum mechanics in a social context similar to that which prevails in our secondary schools, where students are required to encode the “approved” or “censored” information that is presented to them in compartmentalised chunks.

Brousseau (1992) suggests that a conceptual shift occurs when knowledge is “taught” in courses at educational institutions separated from the context of activity where the knowledge first evolved. He states that:

The effort made in order to obtain knowledge independently of situations where it works (decontextualisation) has as a price the loss of meaning and performance at the time of teaching. The restoration of intelligible situations (recontextualisation) has as a price the shift in meaning (didactical transposition).” (Brousseau, 1992)

The conceptual shift described by Brousseau is of particular significance to this investigation. It is submitted that the process involving the loss of meaning during teaching could be closely linked to the inherent difficulty encountered by students studying the subject.

In traditional teaching settings, in which a transmission model of learning is frequently adopted, a student’s “success” is measured by accurately encoding and reproducing information on demand for assessment tasks. In this context “success” for teachers lies in facilitating these processes. Whereas “success” in professional or research settings, equates to an ability to appropriately apply concepts and principles, knowledge is gained through experience in troubleshooting and problem solving, and this can then be applied in the interpretation, definition and resolution of related problems.

The social context for learning physics in undergraduate courses at university is similar in many ways to that present in secondary schools. Course designers tend to compartmentalise the learning content, divorcing that part of the subject which the scientific community has agreed upon. Tertiary textbooks and lectures, particularly in the earlier years, provide “correct” information1.

For assessment purposes, students are required to demonstrate that they have encoded the information accurately, can reproduce essential facts and ideas in examinations and can apply physical models to solve problems. Such an educational context favours cognitive processes associated with encoding and reproducing information. It is not conducive to reflection and review, nor to the construction of personal meanings that are necessary to develop new concepts or a new schematic lens through which to interpret the physical world. Assessment tasks usually assume an absolutely correct answer, even though the scientific mental models that are the focus of study are constantly under review.

Successful learning is measured in terms of correctly completed assessment tasks that demonstrate a “correct” interpretation of the course “content”. These tasks traditionally involve paper and pencil activities that are completed under pressure of time2. Teachers of physics at university level, even those actively researching in the field, come to view well established topics in terms of their experience as providers of information decision making about the best textbook to use, how best to convey key ideas to groups of students and how to check that students “understood” the material. In such a context, “difficulty” is noticed when students are unable to perform assessment tasks. When many students are unable to complete the tasks according to teacher expectations of “correctness”, the topic or physical concepts are then considered to be difficult3.

Quantum mechanics is a good example of a field where students experience this kind of difficulty. Learning about quantum mechanics involves a fundamental reconceptualisation, or shift in intellectual activity, in many different areas. In thinking about quantum mechanics students must move beyond models based on sensory experience towards models that encapsulate theoretical sets of abstract properties. It may be expected that if the context of learning does not promote the kinds of activity that foster conceptual development and personal involvement in meaning making and remaking, then students will fail to develop adequate mental models as a basis for reasoning, researching and problem solving in this field.

A final feature of the educational environment is the mismatch between the progression of the mathematics courses and the levels of mathematics required to successfully undertake more advanced quantum mechanics courses. In university physics a substantial portion of the introductory lectures in quantum physics deal with mathematical techniques that are required to solve problems in quantum mechanics4. Although these mathematical tools are taught in the standard second and third year options in the School of Mathematics they are considered advanced techniques and are therefore presented later in the courses.

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