Exploring the relationship among students' preconceptions, attitudes, and major
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The Force Concept Inventory, (a multiple-choice classical mechanics exam given as a pre-test within the first two weeks of a course and as a post-test within the last two weeks of a course) is one of the most widely used tools in physics education research. The most basic research, which has been implemented at Northern Illinois University for many years, employs a pre- and post-test structure to observe improvements in students' scores over a semester and is used as a quantitative representation of students' learning over the duration of a course. While many studies have been published about best practices to improve results on the Force Concept Inventory between the pre-test and post-test, fewer studies have been conducted on students' thinking upon entering a course. Often, students' initial thoughts on classical mechanics are full of preconceptions. Some of these preconceptions are intuitive ways of observing the world, but they don't often work the way students might imagine. In this research, the relationship among students' preconceptions upon entering a course, their declared majors, and whether or not they view physics in the way an expert in the field would (as defined by the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey) is explored. This relationship is used to discover which common preconceptions are held by different groups of students and could be used to steer the various courses to teach towards correcting those preconceptions specifically. This method of teaching towards correcting preconceptions has been shown to be effective in various research studies, but there has been little work done to see if preconceptions differ by student. This research aims to fill that gap in knowledge. "Expert-like" students who enrolled in calculus-based classical mechanics courses designed for physics and engineering majors did not have unique preconceptions aside from a misapplication of the term "net" force. Non-"expert-like" students who enrolled in algebra-based classical mechanics courses designed for other science majors, as well as algebra-based courses in general physics for all other majors, did have preconceptions unique to their group, mainly that "if motion requires force, then forces must generate motion." Both groups share very common preconceptions, most notably the preconception that an object in motion must have a force acting upon it in the direction of motion.