Available Physics Education research projects:

Measuring intrinsic motivation and learning outcomes in online and blended courses on special relativity

Contact: Ralph Meulenbroeks

Within the physics teacher program special relativity has become a central subject, since it is in the secondary school curriculum but many teachers are not “fluent” in the subject. Therefore, two courses on special relativity are being developed: a blended course within the natk4all curriculum (www.natk4all.nl) and a fully online course, both aiming at a Bachelor 1 physics level. The online course will consist of two parts: a starter package for secondary education, followed by a advanced package leading to Bachelor 1 level. The proposed project encompasses research on intrinsic motivation and learning outcomes for both courses. Intrinsic motivation will be measured using questionnaires and analysis of actual decisions. Learning outcomes will be studied using pre- and posttests, quality analysis of discussions (online/offline), and  focus groups. Within this challenging, extensive study, there is room for one or two master students.

Contact: Elwin Savelsbergh and Floor Kamphorst

The aim of secondary physics education is that students will experience the power of the physics way of describing the world, besides content knowledge. That is, to infer far reaching consequences from simple premises, which turn out to hold in the real world. This aim has proven hard to attain in many areas, but the theory of special relativity, a new topic in the Dutch secondary physics curriculum, is a promising choice to reach these ambitions (Dimitriadi & Halkia, 2012). The theory is based on two assumptions (postulates), that can be regarded as rather straightforward (Einstein, 1905). However, the implications of these assumptions are not straightforward at all, but are very abstract and counterintuitive (Scherr, Shaffer, & Vokos, 2001).

For students to gain conceptual understanding, the learning process should place them in such a position that they experience the need to extend their conceptual knowledge in a certain (scientific) direction (Lijse, 2010). To be able to create such a need, the physics content must be reconstructed for this specific educational purpose (Kattmann, Duit, Gropengiesser, & Komorek, 1996).

For the first postulate of Special Relativity, the relativity postulate, it is important that students understand the notion of ‘intelligent observers’ (i.e. that observers can correct for signal travel time). Scherr et. al. (2001) showed that many students do not distinguish between signal travel time and time dilation.

Your project will focus on spontaneous reasoning of pre-university students (5 VWO) on signal travel time. You will conduct a qualitative analysis of clinical interviews with 14 students. You will be expected to come up with an analysis frame for these interviews, identify various patterns in student reasoning and give implications on your findings for the design of education on this topic. The project is part of the PHD research of Floor Kamphorst. You will work on already collected data and will assist with collecting new data.

Works Cited

Dimitriadi, K., & Halkia, K. (2012). Secondary Students' Understanding of Basic Ideas of Special Relativity. International Journal of Science Education, 2565-2582.

Einstein, A. (1905). Zur elektrodynamik bewegter körper. Annalen der Physik, 322(10), 891-921.

Kattmann, U., Duit, R., Gropengiesser, H., & Komorek, M. (1996). Educational reconstruction - bringing together issues of scientific clarification and students' conceptions. Annual Meeting of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching (NARST). St. Louis.

Komorek, M. &. (2004). The teaching experiment as a powerful method to develop and evaluate teaching and learning sequences in the domain of non‐linear systems. International Journal of Science Education, 619-633.

Lijse, P. (2010). Didactics of science: the forgotten dimension in science education research? In K. Kortland, Klaassen, & Kees, Designing Theory-Based Teaching-Learning Sequences for Science Education (pp. 125-141). Utrecht: CDBeta - Press.

Scherr, R. E. (2001). Appendix A: Event diagrams. In R. E. Scherr, An investigation of student understanding of basic concepts in special relativity (pp. 189-193). Washington: Doctoral Dissertation.

Scherr, R. E., Shaffer, P. S., & Vokos, S. (2001). Student understanding of time in special relativity - Simultaneity and reference frames. American Journal of Physics, 24-35.

Contact: Maarten Pieters and Wilmad Kuijper

This research project contributes to an investigation of long term effects of curriculum reform projects on textbooks, exams and teacher practice. The result of the project will help to answer the overarching question which factors over a longer period stimulate or impede that curriculum innovation ideals are realized in teachers’ practice.

The case of study is physics education in upper secondary education (havo/vwo) in The Netherlands, since 1970.

The focus of this research project is on the national exams. Questions are:

how do exam tasks over the years reflect changes in curriculum content and pedagogical approaches as intended by the major curriculum reform projects?
what information, prescriptions and beliefs have influenced designers of exam tasks and the Board of Examinations (College voor Toetsen en Examens and it predecessors) in their decisions on the design specifications of exam tasks?

For the first of these questions, a scheme of indicators will be developed to analyze exam tasks. For this scheme, an existing instrument can be adapted, which has been used  to analyze textbooks and project and policy documents. For the second question, interviews will be held. The interview questions will be designed on the basis of literature and tried out in test interviews.

Kuiper, W. (2009). Curriculumevaluatie en verantwoorde vernieuwing van bètaonderwijs. Enschede: SLO, Rede uitgesproken bij de aanvaarding van het ambt van bijzonder hoogleraar Curriculumevaluatie met betrekking tot het bètaonderwijs aan de Faculteit Bètawetenschappen, Universiteit Utrecht.

Contact: Wouter van Joolingen and Ad Mooldijk

In the first round of the physics Olympiad for lower secondary education whole classes participate. The percentage of girls is then around 50%. In the second round of 2018, the percentage of girls already diminished to about  18%. Boys score better on the digital questions in the first round. In the final round the girls percentage is still about 18% and the score on the questions is the same as that of the boys.

In the Physics Olympiad for upper secondary education, the percentage of women in the first round is about 38%. In the second round with about 100 students, the percentage of girls is only 12%. In the final round only 1 girl out of 20 participants was present.

When 40% of the girls in lower secondary education in the Netherlands choose voor a more science oriented path in upper secondary, you may expect that at least 40% of the girls will reach the second round of the lower secondary Physics Olympiad. What is the course of the lower achievement? A possible cause can be the way the questions are formulated or the context of the questions.

In this project you will search for possible causes in the formulation of the questions or the contexts of the questions in the first rounds of the Olympiads. You will formulate a possible cause in the way the questions are asked. In the preliminary round of the lower secondary Olympiad you will formulate a few questions that might support your hypotheses.

The preliminary rounds of the Physics Olympiads are digital now. The answers can therefore be used for research on gender, preconceptions and alike. This research is the start of a search to the relation between the results of girls and the way the questions are asked.


McCullough L (2004) Gender, Context, and Physics Assessment, Journal of international Women’s Studies 5-4, 20-30

OECD. (2016b). PISA 2015 results: Excellence and equity in education (Vol. 1). Paris, France: Author.

Lorenzo M etal (2006) Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom, am j phys 74-2, 118-122

Nafis I Karim et al (2018) Do evidence-based active-engagement courses reduce the gender gap in introductory physics? Eur. J. Phys. 39-2,

Mooldijk A & van der Laan J (2019) De Natuurkunde Olympiade Digitaal, NVOX (in press)