Skip to main content

SUPER research

Our current areas of research
Summarising our many areas of research, both active and completed.

Research areas

Map Meetings: motivation, learning, gender and prior knowledge 

We have developed a new style of tutorial, called a Map Meeting. A key feature is the Link Map, a colourful A4 diagram providing a conceptual overview of the weekly topic covered in our first year university physics course. We are evaluating the effectiveness of the Map Meetings as well as the influences of prior knowledge and gender. 

Lindstrøm, C. and Sharma, M. D. (2009) Link maps and map meetings: Scaffolding student learning, Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res., 5(1), 010102

Multimedia in the teaching and learning of physics 

Effectively utilising the potential of multimedia is not a trivial task. It requires research informed by extensive disciplinary knowledge. Educational researchers continue to debate the merits of dynamic visual representations versus static displays. Our projects in this area inform that debate and explore the challenges of communicating the real science behind complex phenomena.

Muller, D. A., Sharma, M. D. and Reimann, P. (2008) Raising cognitive load with linear multimedia to promote conceptual change, Science Education, 92(2), 278-296.
Mayo, A., Sharma, M. D. and Muller, D. A. (2009) Qualitative differences between learning environments using videos in small groups and whole Class discussions: A preliminary study in physics, Research in Science Education, 39(4), 447-493

Conceptual understanding

Physics students hold particular conceptions, alternative conceptions and misconceptions about a range of phenomena. Exploring student notions provides useful insights into learning, curriculum and assessment.

Sharma, M. D., Sefton, I. M., Cole, M., Whymark, A., Millar, R. M. and Smith, A. (2005) Effects of re-using a conceptual exam question in physics. Research in Science Education, 35, 447-469.
Johnston, I. D. Crawford, K. and Fletcher, P. R. (1998) How Students Learn Quantum Mechanics, International Journal of Science Education, 20(4), 427–446.

Conceptual surveys

A popular method of uncovering specific alternative conceptions about physics uses conceptual surveys. We have developed and adapted surveys to investigate a range of issues such as the consistency of students’ mental models.

Tongchai, A., Sharma, M. D., Johnston, I. D., Arayathanikul, K. and Soankwan, C. Developing, evaluating and demonstrating the use of a conceptual survey in mechanical waves, (in press) International Journal of Science Education
Wuttiprom, S., Sharma, M. D., Johnston, I. D., Chitaree, R. and Soankwan, C. (2009) Development and use of a conceptual survey in introductory quantum physics, International Journal of Science Education, 31(5), 631-654.

Undergraduate physics laboratories

Experimentation is a fundamental feature of science. Examination of goals across the three years of undergraduate physics laboratories provides useful insights. Evaluation of individual experiments provides fine-grained detail of factors which promote meaningful learning.

Richardson, A., Sharma, M. D. and Khachan, J. (2008) What are students learning in practicals? A cross sectional study in university physics laboratories, CAL-laborate International, 16, 20-27

Interactive Lecture Demonstrations (ILDs) 

ILDs, developed by Thornton and Sokoloff, are a way to tease out and correct misconceptions that students hold about fundamental ideas in physics. We are testing the gains in students' understanding of subtle ideas in newtonian mechanics using these ILDs, comparing our students' results against the enormous gains reported in North American universities.

Tanahoung, C., Chitaree, R., Soankwan, C., Sharma, M. D. and Johnston, I. D. (2009) The effect of interactive lecture demonstrations on students conceptual understanding of heat and temperature concepts: A study from Thailand, Research in Science & Technological Education, 27(1) 61-74.
Johnston, H. M., Hopkins, A. M., Varvell, K. E., Sharma M. D. and Thornton, R. (2007) The research-teaching nexus in physics: Scholarship into teaching and learning, Australian Physics, 44(2), 66-70.

Student perspectives and attitudes

Reflecting on the international decline in numbers of physics students and physics teachers the question is asked ‘Why do our students choose to study physics?’ It is hoped that the research may provide insights into how to help redirect the downwards spiral.

Teaching and learning physics across Australian universities 

SUPER is involved in a series of national projects examining a range of issues such as service teaching, graduate destinations and learning in laboratories. 

Sharma, M. D., Pollard, J., Mendez, A., Mills, D., O’Byrne, J., Scott, D., Hagon, S., Gribble, J.,Kirkup, L., Livett, M., Low, D., Merchant, A., Rayner, A., Swan, G., Zadnick, M. and Zealey, W. (2008) What does a physics undergraduate education give you? A perspective from Australian physics, European Journal of Physics, 29, 59-72

What are the concerns of first year students?

Understanding student concerns can help provide better experiences. This is done using a survey, during Orientation Week, of the concerns and expectations of students entering the University of The Witwatersrand, South Africa. Results of the initial survey have been fed back to the Dean of Students at Wits.

Over the years, the SUPER team has undertaken research in the following areas. At the present time, there are no active research projects in these areas. However, if someone is interested, specific projects in these areas can easily be commenced. 

Interactive workshop tutorials

The Workshop Tutorials were the product of a nationally funded initiative across Australian universities. The project has produced Workshop Tutorial teaching and learning materials, which are freely available. Further research can focus on various facets including collaborative learning, how quantitative and qualitative understandings are developed, and the role of tutors in facilitating learning. 

Sharma, M. D. Mendez, A. and O'Byrne, J. (2005) The Relationship Between Attendance in Student-Centred Physics Tutorials and Performance in University Examinations, International Journal of Science Education, 27, (11) 1375-1389.

Electronic classroom communication systems (clickers)

We have investigated the use of clickers in large first-year lecture classes. Students use the keypads to answer two-step multiple choice problems which have been generated using students' answers from past exams. Over time, the clickers are being used in diverse ways. Further research can focus on a range of issues from how clickers can be used to scaffold the learning of different types of ‘knowledge’, to maintaining student interest.

Sharma, M. D., Khachan, J., Chan, B. and O'Byrne, J. (2005) An investigation of the effectiveness of electronic classroom communication systems in large lecture classes, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 21, 137-154.

Transferability of mathematical skills

A particular idea or technique in mathematics – for example, the processes of exponential growth and decay – may appear in very disparate fields of science. The language, symbols and tradition of these techniques often differ across the different disciplines; students may not even recognise that they are learning the same skills over again. Further research can examine whether students transfer these common mathematics skills between disciplines and the associated cognitive and environmental factors.

Roberts, A. L., Sharma, M. D., Britton, S. and New, P. B. (2007) An index to measure the ability of first year science students to transfer mathematics, International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science & Technology, 38(4), 429-448

Effects of changes in the high school syllabus on undergraduate students' learning experiences

Changes in the NSW high school syllabuses may have a dramatic impact on the ways in which students view and approach their learning. We examined changes in learning styles and attitudes of students entering university physics courses that may have been associated with these different methods of presenting physics at high school. 

Sharma, M. D., Stewart C. and Prosser, M. (2004) On the use of phenomenography in the analysis of qualitative data, 2003 Physics Education Research Conference, American Institute of Physics Conference Proceedings, Madison, Wisconsin, 720, 41-44, ISBN 0-7354-0200-0.

Stewart, C., Sharma M. D. and Prosser, M. (2002) Just how different are they? Learning physics in the wake of the NSW HSC syllabus changeover, Proceedings of the 15th Australian Institute of Physics Congress, Sydney, 223-225, ISBN 0-9598064-4-X

Thermal physics resources

From 1995 to 1998 we conducted an extensive project on ways in which thermal physics is learned and taught. 

Gray, A. (1998) Honours Thesis - Developing a Prototype Thermal Concept Inventory (School of Physics, University of Sydney)
Henderson, E. M. (1994) Honours Thesis - Conceptual Development in Thermal Physics (School of Physics, University of Sydney)

Computational physics

Computational physics is a key tool for physics research. If used appropriately, computational physics in the undergraduate curriculum allows students to visualize and understand abstract phenomena in diverse domains such as physical optics and quantum mechanics. 

Johnston, I. D. (1996) Photon States Made Easy: A Computational Approach to Quantum Radiation Theory, American Journal of Physics, 64(3), 245–255.
Johnston, I. D. and McPhedran, R. C. (1993) Computational Physics in the Undergraduate Curriculum, The Australian & New Zealand Physicist, 30(4), 67–73, Reprinted in: Assoc. of Asia Pacific Phys. Soc. Bull., 30(2), 28–33.