11.11. Teaching and learning of electric and magnetic fields at the university level

 Public examination of a doctoral dissertation in the field of didactic physics

Doctoral candidate: Licentiate in Philosophy Markku Saarelainen 

Date and venue: 11.11.2011, at 12 noon, L22, Snellmania, Kuopio campus 


The goals of this study are to improve the teaching and learning of electro- and magnetostatics at the university level. This study has four parts: evaluating the students’ prior knowledge in the subject area, identifying obstacles to learning, and developing and evaluating teaching strategies that result in good student performance. 

Successful learning of electro- and magnetostatics and Gauss’s, Lorenz’s and the Biot-Savart laws depends on understanding the concept of electric and magnetic fields. The kernel of electromagnetic theory, i.e. Maxwell’s four equations, is highly abstract, and the equations are frequently misunderstood. 

Previous studies have revealed several learning problems related to electro- and magnetostatics. One is the concept of a vector field. Similar problems were found in this study, too. The students participating in a course on electromagnetics in Kuopio in 2004-2009 were given a test to evaluate their background knowledge and were interviewed in order for the instructor to gain a deeper understanding of their prior knowledge. The analysis of the pre-conceptions revealed that the students were not capable of applying vector representations of electric fields even if they successfully treated forces as vectors. For the students, force is a more concrete concept than field. Regarding magnetism, the students confused it with electric field and force. Furthermore, understanding the use and the basis of the specific Right -hand rules for the magnetic field and force was challenging for the students since they did not possess a proper theoretical foundation for those rules. 

By eliciting information about students’ thinking, it is possible to address the most common obstacles to learning. Having a correct concept of vector field was found to be the key for successful learning for the majority of the students. This finding is in accordance with previous results showing that students faced difficulties when changing their thinking from the Newtonian model (of force acting on a physical object from a distance)to the Maxwellian model (of the idea of the field being the media of the interaction). 

In order to devise more effective teaching, we applied the strategy of educational reconstruction. Based on the findings concerning students’ conceptions, and analysing the physics content to be taught, new teaching sequences were developed. The sequences consisted of novel lectures with multi-step tasks where they could apply their newly acquired knowledge. Student learning was monitored by using post tests and by analysing final exams. The results indicated that the students adopted vector-related reasoning. 

This study provides a precise view of the students’ initial concepts of the electric and magnetic fields. It also demonstrates how a fuller understanding of the field concept can be achieved and how this affects instruction. 

The doctoral dissertation of Markku Saarelainen entitled “Teaching and learning of electric and magnetic fields at the university level” will be examined at the Faculty of Science and Forestry. The opponent in the public examination is Docent Ismo Koponen, University of Helsinki and the custos is Professor Ari Laaksonen of the University of Eastern Finland.

Photo available for download at http://www.uef.fi/vaitoskuvat

Contact: Markku Saarelainen, tel. +358 500 817413, markku.saarelainen@uef.fi

Publishing year: 2011

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