Vashti and Abhilash Publish Article About Epistemological progress in physics and its impact on biology

  • Jan 22, 2019
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PERL co-director Vashti Sawtelle, PERL alumni Abhilash Nair, and colleagues have published an article in Physical Review Physics Education Research titled Epistemological progress in physics and its impact on biology.


Epistemologically oriented reforms of physics courses aim to change the way students think about knowledge and approach learning in physics. A broader goal of these reforms is to impact how students think about knowledge and learning in other courses. We investigate the effects of epistemological reforms in a physics course on knowing and learning in biology courses through a case study of a biology major, Phillip, who was enrolled in a year-long reformed introductory physics for the life sciences (IPLS) course. First, we show that Phillip’s epistemological framing of the physics course became more sophisticated, aligning with reforms designed to emphasize reasoning with foundational principles, seeking meaning and coherence. He also developed an approach to learning physics that involved coordinating understanding between course readings and class discussions and reconciling discrepancies with peers and the teaching assistant. Second, we present evidence of the impact of this new epistemological framing on Phillip’s interpretation of his biology courses. Before the year in physics, Phillip framed his biology courses as about understanding. By the end of the year, Phillip reversed his stance on biology learning, reporting that he had actually been memorizing all this time. We discuss these results to highlight the success of epistemological reforms in physics beyond the confines of the physics classroom, to motivate attention epistemological reform beyond physics, and to offer suggestions for how IPLS courses can work towards creating epistemological connections to other disciplines.