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Complexity Theory and Physics Education Research: The Case of Student Retention in Physics and Related Degree Programmes
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education Research)
2015 (English)Doctoral thesis, comprehensive summary (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

This thesis explores the use of complexity theory in Physics Education Research as a way to examine the issue of student retention (a university’s ability to retain its students). University physics education is viewed through the concepts of nestedness and networked interactions. The work presented in this thesis covers two main aspects from a complexity theory perspective: (1) institutional action to enhance student retention; and, (2) the role of students’ in-course interaction networks. These aspects are used to reframe student retention from a complexity theory perspective, as well as to explore what implications this new perspective affords. The first aspect is addressed by conceptualizing student retention as an emergent phenomenon caused by both agent and component interaction within a complex system. A methodology is developed to illustrate a networked visualization of such a system using contemporary estimation methods. Identified limitations are discussed. To exemplify the use of simulations of complex systems, the networked system created is used to build a simulation of an “ideal” university system as well as a Virtual world for hypothesis-testing. The second aspect is divided into two sections: Firstly, an analysis of processes relating to how students’ in-course networks are created is undertaken. These networks are divided into two relevant components for student retention – the social and the academic. Analysis of these two components of the networks shows that the formation of the networks is not a result of random processes and is thus framed as a function of the core constructs of student retention research – the social and academic systems. Secondly, a case is made that students’ structural positions in the social and academic networks can be related to their grade achievement in the course.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2015. , 185 p.
Series
Digital Comprehensive Summaries of Uppsala Dissertations from the Faculty of Science and Technology, ISSN 1651-6214 ; 1273
Keyword [en]
Physics Education Research, Complexity Theory, Student Retention
National Category
Didactics Other Physics Topics
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-259413ISBN: 978-91-554-9303-5 (print)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-259413DiVA: diva2:846064
Public defence
2015-10-02, Häggsalen (Å10132), Ångströmlaboratoriet, Uppsala, 09:00 (English)
Opponent
Supervisors
Available from: 2015-09-11 Created: 2015-08-03 Last updated: 2015-10-01
List of papers
1. A new approach to modelling student retention through an application of complexity thinking
Open this publication in new window or tab >>A new approach to modelling student retention through an application of complexity thinking
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2014 (English)In: Studies in Higher Education, ISSN 0307-5079, E-ISSN 1470-174X, Vol. 39, no 1, 68-86 p.Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Complexity thinking is relatively new to education research and has rarely been used to examine complex issues in physics and engineering education. Issues in higher education such as student retention have been approached from a multiplicity of perspectives and are recognized as complex. The complex system of student retention modelling in higher education was examined to provide an illustrative account of the application of complexity thinking in educational research. Exemplar data was collected from undergraduate physics and related engineering students studying at a Swedish university. The analysis shows how complexity thinking may open up new ways of viewing and analysing complex educational issues in higher education in terms of nested, interdependent and interconnected systems. Whilst not intended to present new findings, the article does illustrate a possible representation of the system of items related to student retention and how to identify such influential items.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Routledge, 2014
National Category
Physical Sciences
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-170290 (URN)10.1080/03075079.2011.643298 (DOI)000337178800006 ()
Available from: 2012-03-10 Created: 2012-03-10 Last updated: 2017-12-07Bibliographically approved
2. Considering student retention as a complex system: a possible way forward for enhancing student retention
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Considering student retention as a complex system: a possible way forward for enhancing student retention
2015 (English)In: European Journal of Engineering Education, ISSN 0304-3797, E-ISSN 1469-5898, Vol. 40, no 3, 235-255 p.Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

This study uses multilayer minimum spanning tree analysis to develop a model for student retention from a complex system perspective, using data obtained from first-year engineering students at a large well-regarded institution in the European Union. The results show that the elements of the system of student retention are related to one another through a network of links and that some of these links were found to be strongly persistent across different scales (group sizes). The links were also seen to group together in different clusters of strongly related elements. Links between elements across a wide range of these clusters would have system-wide influence. It was found that there were no elements that are both persistent and have system-wide effects. This complex system view of student retention explains why actions to enhance student retention aimed at single elements in the system have had such limited impact.This study therefore points to the need for a more system-wide approach to enhancing student retention.

Keyword
higher education, student retention, complex systems, multilayer minimum spanning tree analysis
National Category
Didactics
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-235499 (URN)10.1080/03043797.2014.941340 (DOI)000355565100001 ()
Available from: 2014-11-05 Created: 2014-11-05 Last updated: 2017-12-05Bibliographically approved
3. Sandbox University: Estimating Influence of Institutional Action
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Sandbox University: Estimating Influence of Institutional Action
2014 (English)In: PLoS ONE, ISSN 1932-6203, E-ISSN 1932-6203, Vol. 9, no 7, e103261- p.Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

The approach presented in this article represents a generalizable and adaptable methodology for identifying complexinteractions in educational systems and for investigating how manipulation of these systems may affect educationaloutcomes of interest. Multilayer Minimum Spanning Tree and Monte-Carlo methods are used. A virtual Sandbox Universityis created in order to facilitate effective identification of successful and stable initiatives within higher education, which canaffect students’ credits and student retention – something that has been lacking up until now. The results highlight theimportance of teacher feedback and teacher-student rapport, which is congruent with current educational findings,illustrating the methodology’s potential to provide a new basis for further empirical studies of issues in higher educationfrom a complex systems perspective.

Keyword
Complex systems, Simulations, Higher Education, MCMC
National Category
Didactics Probability Theory and Statistics Information Systems Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-230633 (URN)10.1371/journal.pone.0103261 (DOI)000339614100100 ()25054313 (PubMedID)
Available from: 2014-08-27 Created: 2014-08-27 Last updated: 2018-01-11Bibliographically approved
4. Extending the theoretical framing for physics education research: An illustrative application of complexity science
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Extending the theoretical framing for physics education research: An illustrative application of complexity science
2014 (English)In: Physical Review Special Topics : Physics Education Research, ISSN 1554-9178, E-ISSN 1554-9178, Vol. 10, 020122- p.Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

The viability of using complexity science in physics education research (PER) is exemplified by(1) situating central tenets of student persistence research in complexity science and (2) drawing on themethods that become available from this to illustrate analyzing the structural aspects of students’ networkedinteractions as an important dynamic in student persistence. By drawing on the most cited characterizationsof student persistence, we theorize that university environments are made up of social and academicsystems, which PER work on student persistence has largely ignored. These systems are interpreted asbeing constituted from rules of interaction that affect the structural aspects of students’ social and academicnetwork interactions from a complexity science perspective. To illustrate this empirically, an exploration ofthe nature of the social and academic networks of university-level physics students is undertaken. This isdone by combining complexity science with social network analysis to characterize structural similaritiesand differences of the social and academic networks of students in two courses. It is posited that framing asocial network analysis within a complexity science perspective offers a new and powerful applicabilityacross a broad range of PER topics.

Keyword
01.40.Fk, 89.75.Fb, 89.65.-s
National Category
Didactics
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-235503 (URN)10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.10.020122 (DOI)000342156200001 ()
Available from: 2014-11-05 Created: 2014-11-05 Last updated: 2017-12-05Bibliographically approved
5. Grade achievement as a function of social and academic relations in the University Physics Context
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Grade achievement as a function of social and academic relations in the University Physics Context
(English)Manuscript (preprint) (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

A complexity perspective is used to differentiate between the social network that student develop, which is made up of the social ties constituted between students within a given course, and the academic network, which in turn is made up of academic ties constituted between students within a given course. This differentiation is introduced because, up until now, research in the field has only investigated connections between undifferentiated network ties and students’ academic success. As a start to dealing with this issue, the study explores what network structures emerge from students' interactions with each other within their courses, in particular the social and academic networks that they create.  Network analysis is used to examine students’ structural position in these networks in relation to student’s grade achievement on two courses in physics and related engineering degree programmes in Sweden.  The remaining data consists of a network survey conducted at a highly regarded traditional Swedish university.  The analysis indicates that while the participating physics and engineering student (n1= 64, n2= 68) socialized and studied together to a large degree, their positions in their social and academic networks were related to grade achievement in different ways.

Keyword
Grade achievement, social networks, academic networks, complexity science, physics education research
National Category
Didactics
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-259412 (URN)
Available from: 2015-08-03 Created: 2015-08-03 Last updated: 2017-01-25Bibliographically approved

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