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Variation as a method for perceiving the disciplinary affordances of physics representations
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education Research)
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education Research)
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education Research)
2014 (English)Conference paper, Presentation (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

The sharing of knowledge in physics uses representations that the discipline has built a great deal of information into. In many cases, much of this information is not immediately visible because it has been “packed” in ways that can only be accessed by specific disciplinary ways of seeing. For example, consider the de Sitter space represented by a particular hyperboloid.

This is a powerful representation for physicists working in the field of string theory because, inter alia, it can provide de Sitter space with a multiplicity of coordinate systems (Domert, 2006, p. 30). At the same time such a representation can present challenges to student learning; students would have to learn to “see” what “lies behind” the representation. In this case, for example, how R is related to the concept of a de Sitter horizon.

While for physicists such a representation might evoke a rich awareness (or perhaps rather help constraining that awareness, cf. Ainsworth, 2006), it conceivably evokes little appropriate disciplinary meaning when first met by students. Northedge (2002) argues that physics teachers may not be aware that what they have learnt to “see” is not directly accessible to learners. That is, while physicists have developed a competency that allows them to immediately see the “disciplinary affordances” of a representation (“the inherent potential of that representation to provide access to disciplinary knowledge”, Fredlund, Airey, & Linder, 2012, p. 658) they fail to recognize that their students may not, or even cannot, see what lies behind that representation.

Much research has shown that students often learn surprisingly little from traditional teaching resources such as talk-and-chalk followed by problem solving (Redish, 2003). To deal with this challenge several research-informed resources have been developed and empirically shown to enhance students’ learning outcomes. Widely used examples include Tutorials (McDermott & Shaffer, 2002), Active Learning (Van Heuvelen & Etkina, 2006) and Peer Instruction (Crouch & Mazur, 2001). However, these resources have not been accompanied with a theoretical framing that would enable physics teachers to develop their own teaching resources. We believe that such a theoretical framing exists: creating the explicit experience of dimensions of variation (Marton & Booth, 1997). 

In this presentation we develop this argument and illustrate it using examples of how representations can be varied in ways that facilitate the noticing of educationally critical aspects.


Ainsworth, S. (2006). DeFT: A conceptual framework for considering learning with multiple representations. Learning and Instruction, 16(3), 183-198.

Crouch, C. H., & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. Am. J. Phys., 69(9), 970-977.

Domert, D. (2006). Explorations of university physics in abstract contexts: from de Sitter space to learning space. PhD thesis, Uppsala University, Uppsala.

Fredlund, T., Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2012). Exploring the role of physics representations: an illustrative example from students sharing knowledge about refraction. Eur. J. Phys., 33, 657- 666.

Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and Awareness. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
Disciplinary affordance; physics representations; variation; experience; learning
National Category
Other Physics Topics
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-240538OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-240538DiVA: diva2:776674
IACS-2014. The First Conference of the International Association for Cognitive Semiotics
Swedish Research Council
Available from: 2015-01-07 Created: 2015-01-07 Last updated: 2015-01-07

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