Assessing Student Understanding of Measurement and Uncertainty

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Title: Assessing Student Understanding of Measurement and Uncertainty
Author: Abbott, David Scot
Advisors: Robert J. Beichner, Committee Chair
John L. Hubisz, Committee Member
John C. Park, Committee Member
J. Richard Mowat, Committee Member
Abstract: A test to assess student understanding of measurement and uncertainty has been developed and administered to more than 500 students at two large research universities. The aim is two-fold: 1) to assess what students learn in the first semester of introductory physics labs and 2) to uncover patterns in student reasoning and practice. The forty minute, eleven item test focuses on direct measurement and student attitudes toward multiple measurements. After one revision cycle using think-aloud interviews, the test was administered to students to three groups: students enrolled in traditional laboratory lab sections of first semester physics at North Carolina State University (NCSU), students in an experimental (SCALE-UP) section of first semester physics at NCSU, and students in first semester physics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The results were analyzed using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods. In the traditional NCSU labs, where students receive no instruction in uncertainty and measurement, students show no improvement on any of the areas examined by the test. In SCALE-UP and at UNC, students show statistically significant gains in most areas of the test. Gains on specific test items in SCALE-UP and at UNC correspond to areas of instructional emphasis. Test items were grouped into four main aspects of performance: 'point/set' reasoning, meaning of spread, ruler reading and 'stacking.' Student performance on the pretest was examined to identify links between these aspects. Items within each aspect are correlated to one another, sometimes quite strongly, but items from different aspects rarely show statistically significant correlation. Taken together, these results suggest that student difficulties may not be linked to a single underlying cause. The study shows that current instruction techniques improve student understanding, but that many students exit the introductory physics lab course without appreciation or coherent understanding for the concept of measurement uncertainty.
Date: 2003-09-17
Degree: PhD
Discipline: Physics

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