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Thursday, December 10 • 3:00pm - 3:50pm
Clarifying Uncertainty About Uncertainties: Exploring a Threshold Concept of Error Analysis in Introductory Physics Courses (Poster)

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Uncertainty and error analysis is considered a “threshold concept” in the scientific community (i.e., a difficult but basic skill required to achieve success). However, there are relatively few studies related to undergraduate students’ understanding of this concept (Allie et al., 2008; Day et al., 2014; Holmes and Bonn, 2013; Macdonald et al., 2013). The main purpose of this study is to explore students’ understanding of data reporting, error analysis and propagation, and graphical tools. Pre- and post-surveys were conducted at the start and end of term, respectively, in three undergraduate introductory physics courses in the Physical Sciences, Integrated Sciences, and Arts and Sciences programs.  We aim to identify potential strengths and differences between these communities as they relate to physics.

The above surveys assessed students’ capabilities and confidence levels with a relatively new standardized instrument on uncertainty analysis (the Concise Data Processing Assessment; Day and Bonn, 2011) and a more-established instrument on Newtonian mechanics (the Force-Concept Inventory; Hestenes, Wells and Swackhamer, 1992; Huffman and Heller, 1995; Hake, 1998; Savinainen and Scott, 2001).  Students’ understanding of uncertainties is also compared to various other factors, including incoming high-school grades, program, and gender of the student.

We anticipate that this data will provide insights into how well students understand uncertainties and will guide future studies in the field of physics pedagogy. A deeper understanding of this area will facilitate improvements in how introductory physics classes introduce and develop the topic of uncertainties in the future, which would both encourage current students and potentially increase enrollment for future students in the physics community.


Robert Cockcroft

McMaster University

Tiffany Shi

McMaster University

Harrison Winch

McMaster University

Thursday December 10, 2015 3:00pm - 3:50pm EST
McMaster Innovation Park Atrium