This study focuses on student learning of quantum mechanics at a tertiary or university level. The subjects who participated in this study were drawn from the University of Sydney community in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.
At the University of Sydney, quantum mechanics is taught in the Faculty of Science within the School of Physics and the School of Chemistry. The general philosophy of teaching in these Schools is based on the desire to equip students with skills used by professional physicists and chemists. These skills include problem solving, development of theories through experimentation and observation, research methods and design, communication of scientific material, reasoning and deduction about physical systems, and proficiency with computer technology.
The academic staff employ a variety of individual styles and media including lectures, experimental laboratories, computational laboratories and conceptual tutorials to achieve these skills. For example, the aims of the School of Physics teaching program are as follow:
“The teaching and learning programs of the School aim to develop an understanding of the major concepts that underlie current views of the natural world, to provide insights into the experimental and theoretical methods that lead to these concepts, and to reveal the intimate and abundant connections between these concepts and the material and cultural welfare of modern society.” (The University of Sydney, School of Physics - Strategic Plan 1998-)
The Schools of Physics and Chemistry at the University of Sydney offer a variety of undergraduate programs ranging from service courses for Dentistry students to Honours courses for physics and chemistry majors. Courses are offered at four levels: Junior (1st year), Intermediate (2nd year), Senior (3rd year) and Honours (4th year) level.
The School of Physics currently consists of approximately 60 academic/research staff, more than 70 postgraduate students and some 20 administrative and technical staff. Physics is taught by the School to around 1600 students at all levels. Over 1200 of these are enrolled in Junior (1st) year Physics courses of various types. Approximately 230 of these students progress to Intermediate (2nd) year and a further 30 take Physics as a “major” in their Senior (3rd) year. The number of Honours (4th) year students typically varies between 15 to 20.
Description of Junior Physics Courses
Students studying physics at the Junior level are enrolled in a range of Faculties including Arts, Dentistry, Education, Engineering, Science and Veterinary Science. The School of Physics provides service courses in physics for Dentistry, Veterinary Science and Engineering students. The remaining mainstream students have the choice of taking junior physics at either advanced or normal levels.
The advanced level of junior physics is intended for students with a strong background in physics and calculus-based mathematics. The course covers more material than the normal level and in greater mathematical detail. Students are invited to participate in this level if they have satisfied certain entrance requirements based on the New South Wales University Admission Index (UAI) or equivalent.
At the normal level of junior physics, there is a further division of the course into the regular and fundamental options in first semester to accommodate different student backgrounds. The regular option is suited to those students who have studied physics at secondary school level. The fundamental option is primarily for those students who have not previously studied physics. Both the regular and fundamental options of the normal level share the same syllabus, and there is a common examination. In second semester students choose between Technological and Environmental and Life Sciences options depending on interest and professional relevance.
The first year junior Technological ^ , the Environmental and Life Sciences Atoms, Nuclei and Quanta and the Advanced Quantum, Materials Physics and Superconductivity courses comprise fifteen one-hour formal lectures. Non-compulsory tutorials designed to promote student conceptual understanding are available and student attendance is encouraged. These courses (at time of study) are based on relevant chapters in the textbook, Fundamentals of Physics (6th Edition) by Halliday, Resnick and Walker, and students are expected to own a copy. References given during the course and assignment problems for class assessment are contained in this textbook.
The junior physics courses are assessed by assignments, laboratory quizzes and formal examinations at the end of each semester. These three assessment components are weighted for each course option; however, in all cases the formal examinations are the most significant component.
Description of Intermediate Physics Courses
Intermediate physics is offered at advanced and normal levels. Students are allocated to these streams based upon their previous performance in university physics. Teaching and learning environments provided are lectures, experimental laboratories and computational laboratories. To meet the course requirements, students must complete units whose content includes quantum physics, astronomy, electromagnetism, optics, instrumentation and thermal physics.
The intermediate quantum mechanics courses comprise a 20 lecture course which builds on the basics of quantum mechanics covered in Junior Physics, blackbody radiation, Planck's hypothesis, the photoelectric effect and Compton scattering. Students derive the Schrödinger equation, examine quantum phenomena in one-dimensional systems and investigate a number of interesting phenomena including the Uncertainty Principle and quantum tunnelling. These and other phenomena are linked to form the basis of much of 20th century physics, underpinning areas such as atomic physics, superconductivity, particle physics and chemistry. In the last part of the course, quantum physics is applied to the solid-state such as conductors, insulators and semiconductors. Symmetry of wave functions, exclusion principles and statistical physics are introduced to explain these behaviours. The physics behind some electronic solid-state devices such as diodes and transistors is then examined within the context of quantum physics. The Advanced course covers the same material as the Technological and Environmental course and is more detailed.5
Several quantum physics experiments are available in the Intermediate Physics Laboratory, including Holes and Electrons in Semiconductors; the Photoelectric Effect; Collisional Excitation of Atoms; Fine Structure of Spectral Lines; Photons and the Wave-Particle Dilemma; and Atomic Emission Spectra.
A quantum mechanics computational physics course is coordinated and offered concurrently with the core lecture course, Quantum Physics. The course is accompanied by a set of Computational Physics Notes. The software package on which the course is based is Matlab. The course is conducted in the School of Physics' micro-computer laboratory, runs over 10 weeks and comprises 10 two hour sessions, allocated problem sets (sessions 1-7); projects (sessions 8-9); and examination (session 10).