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The Science of Learning Physics cover


This book on the teaching and learning of physics is intended for college-level instructors, but high school instructors might also find it very useful.

Some ideas found in this book might be a small "tweak" to existing practices whereas others require more substantial revisions to instruction. The discussions of student learning herein are based on research evidence accumulated over decades from various fields, including cognitive psychology, educational psychology, the learning sciences, and discipline-based education research including physics education research. Likewise, the teaching suggestions are also based on research findings. As for any other scientific endeavor, physics education research is an empirical field where experiments are performed, data are analyzed and conclusions drawn. Evidence from such research is then used to inform physics teaching and learning.

While the focus here is on introductory physics taken by most students when they are enrolled, however, the ideas can also be used to improve teaching and learning in both upper-division undergraduate physics courses, as well as graduate-level courses. Whether you are new to teaching physics or a seasoned veteran, various ideas and strategies presented in the book will be suitable for active consideration.


Sample Chapter(s)
Chapter 1: Introduction



  • Introduction
  • The Formation of Concepts and How to Fix Broken Ones
  • How Learning Looks for a Novice: Implications of Expert-Novice Research for Physics Teaching and Learning
  • From Manipulating Equations to a More Conceptual Approach: How to Improve Problem Solving
  • Active Learning Strategies: Engaging Students in Their Own Learning is the Key to Learning
  • Students' Perceptions of Learning and their Study Habits
  • Testing in the Service of Learning: The Testing Effect and How it Promotes Long-Term Retention


Readership: Physics instructors teaching college-level introductory physics; instructors of introductory courses in science technology, engineering and mathematics.


Free Access
  • Pages:i–viii

Free Access
Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Pages:1–9

No Access
Chapter 2: The Formation of Concepts and How to Fix Broken Ones
  • Pages:11–36

No Access
Chapter 3: How Learning Looks for a Novice: Implications of Expert–Novice Research for Physics Teaching and Learning
  • Pages:37–81

No Access
Chapter 4: From Manipulating Equations to a More Conceptual Approach: How to Improve Problem Solving
  • Pages:83–109

No Access
Chapter 5: Active Learning Strategies: Engaging Students in their Own Learning is the Key to Learning
  • Pages:111–139

No Access
Chapter 6: Students’ Perceptions of Learning and their Study Habits
  • Pages:141–167

No Access
Chapter 7: Testing in the Service of Learning: The Testing Effect and How it Promotes Long-Term Retention
  • Pages:169–184

No Access
Chapter 8: Concluding Remarks
  • Pages:185–187

Free Access
  • Pages:189–202

"For many decades, Jose Mestre and the teams of researchers he led have carried out deep and insightful research into the psychology of how students learn (and resist learning) physics. In this book, he and his long-time collaborator, Jennifer Docktor, give a clear and compelling explanation of what they have learned and how a physics teacher can use this understanding of student learning to produce more effective instruction. This should be required reading for any new physics teacher and could serve as an excellent text for a graduate seminar for physics teaching assistants."

Joe (E.F.) Redish
Professor of Physics


"The book by Docktor and Mestre has excellent examples of physics problems and questions, that will help every physics teacher probe student understanding at a deep level. In addition, the strategies that the authors suggest for helping students learn are original and practical. The sections 'Examples of teaching interventions based on learning research' in each chapter will provide guidance for anyone who is interested in implementing the findings from PER in their practice."

Dr. Eugenia Etkina
Distinguished Professor of Science Education
Rutgers University


"Had this wonderful book been available to me when I was an undergraduate student, I may never have switched my major from Physics to Math to Cognitive Science. Among the book's other contributions, it contains a highly readable and accurate summary of what research on learning has to say about how students learn, versus how they — and their teachers — may think they learn."

Dr. Robert A. Bjork
Distinguished Professor of Psychology
University of California, Los Angeles


"A must read for all physics educators who want to know about how students make sense of physics concepts and learn to problem solve. These leading researchers of physics education provide a concise, accessible, evidence-based and actionable guide to effective educational strategies."

Dr. Noah D. Finkelstein
Professor of Physics
University of Colorado at Boulder


"We all want our students to develop deep conceptual understanding, to become competent problem solvers, and to employ effective learning strategies. This gem of a short book–light on educational jargon and heavy on practical recommendations — shows us how that can be done and, more importantly, why those pedagogical methods work. This book should be in the working library of every physics educator."

Dr. Robert C. Hilborn
Associate Executive Officer
American Association of Physics Teachers


José P Mestre is an emeritus Professor of Physics and Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since earning his PhD in theoretical nuclear physics, his research has focused on the learning of physics, making many pioneering contributions in areas such as the acquisition and use of knowledge by experts and novices, transfer of learning, and problem solving. He was among the first to publish scholarly articles on the use of classroom polling technologies (clickers) to promote active learning in large classes, and is a co-developer of Minds-On Physics, an activity-based high school physics curriculum that is heavily informed by learning research. Most recently, his research has focused on applications of methodologies common in cognitive science (e.g., eye-tracking) to study learning and information processing by physics novices and experts. He has served on many national committees and boards for organizations such as the National Research Council, The College Board and Educational Testing Service and the American Association of Physics Teachers, and has offered Congressional testimony on The Science of Learning. He has published numerous research and review articles on science learning and teaching, and has co-authored or co-edited 19 books. Mestre served as Associate Dean at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and both as Chair of the Department of Educational Psychology and as Associate Dean for Research at the College of Education at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society with citation: "For ground-breaking applications of principles and methodologies from cognitive science to physics education research and for elucidating expert-novice performance differences in physics learning and problem solving."


Jennifer L Docktor is an Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. After completing a physics teacher preparation program at North Dakota State University she earned her M.S. in High Energy Physics and her PhD in Physics Education Research at the University of Minnesota. Her doctoral research focused on the Development and Validation of a Physics Problem-Solving Assessment Rubric. She spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow in Cognitive Science at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign as part of a unique interdisciplinary research group on physics learning and cognition. She has collaborated with José on a variety of projects including conceptual problem solving in high school physics, categorization, and using eye-tracking technology to study physics representations. In 2010 they co-authored a commissioned paper for the National Academies report on Discipline-Based Education Research which was later published in Physical Review as the article Synthesis of Discipline-Based Education Research in Physics. In addition to these endeavors she is involved in several national efforts surrounding physics teacher preparation including the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) and the project Get the Facts Out about STEM Teacher Recruitment. She has served on national committees for the American Association of Physics Teachers and currently serves as editor-in-chief for the American Physical Society's Forum on Education newsletter.

Sample Chapter(s)
Chapter 1: Introduction