Government policy on mathematics and physical science

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Chapter 3 Research Process and Methods


This chapter discusses the research process and methods used in the study. It also outlines the study area, participants, instruments used, data collection and data analysis techniques.

Study Design

This study explores the effect of Foundation Physics (with particular focus on mechanics) on students’ performance in Physics I at several South African universities. This is a piece of evaluation research, where the evaluation object is the Foundation Physics course. An evaluation object is that which is being evaluated (Guba & Lincoln, 1981; Scriven, 1967; Worthen, Sanders, & Fitzpatrick, 1997). Evaluation involves determining the worth, merit, or quality of an evaluation object (Johnson & Christensen, 2000).

Study Area

Since the focus of the study is to investigate the influence of Foundation Physics on students’ performance in Physics I, students from four South African universities were considered. Several other universities were approached to participate, but were not available. Thus the universities selected represent a convenience sample comprising universities that were within a 4-hour drive of the researcher’s place of work and that were willing to participate.
All four universities offer Foundation Physics to students who, on the basis of their Grade 12 performance, failed to meet the entry requirements for Physics I. The four institutions are all classified as Historically Black Universities because they were meant to serve black students who are also known to be historically disadvantaged.
The Foundation Programmes are meant to assist disadvantaged students regardless of race so that they can gain entry into the mainstream courses.


Convenience sampling is used in this study because it enables one to study the “sampling units that are conveniently available to the researcher” (Chadwick et al., 1984:65). In this study, students who were readily available on the day of data collection were considered participants. The participants in this research were Physics I students (N = 194) selected from the four institutions: Institution 1 (N = 92), Institution 2 (N = 47), Institution 3 (N = 48) and Institution 4 (N = 7). This group of students includes students who first enrolled for Foundation Physics (N=72) and those who qualified to do Physics I (N=122) on the basis of their Grade 12 symbols. Students who did not obtain good symbols in Grade 12 and they want to do a qualification that requires Physics I enrol for Foundation Physics. After they have passed they will then be able to enrol for Physics I (Introductory Physics). A questionnaire that allowed students to fill in their biographical details including whether or not they did Foundation Physics, was attached to the FMCE answer sheet. The students were all registered for Physics I in 2004, and by the time the research was conducted they had all finished the Mechanics module, the module on which this study is focused.
All 194 students participated in answering the FMCE questionnaire. This represents the number of students who agreed to participate and not the entire student body in the course. The Foundation group and the non-Foundation group from each institution answered the FMCE questionnaire at the same allocated time. Out of 194 students who participated, 26 (12 Foundation group and 14 non-Foundation) were interviewed in focus group interviews. Two focus groups were selected from each institution, i.e. from the Foundation group and the non-Foundation group. Institution 4 had one student representing the Foundation focus group and three students in the non-Foundation focus group. Institution 1 had four students in the Foundation focus group and five students in the non-Foundation focus group. Institution 2 had two students in the non-Foundation focus group and three in the Foundation focus group. Institution 3 had four students from the Foundation focus group and four students from the non- Foundation focus group. In order to gain more insight into the issues affecting students’ performance in Physics I, four Foundation Physics lecturers, one from each of the four institutions, were also interviewed. The procedure for choosing interview volunteers will be discussed later.

Instruments and data sources

For the purpose of triangulation, qualitative and quantitative styles of research and data collection were used (Chadwick et al. 1984:40 & Neuman, 2000:125). According to McMillan and Schumacher (2001:41), qualitative techniques involve data collection in the form of words rather than numbers. Qualitative techniques provide verbal descriptions to portray the richness and complexity of events that occur in natural settings from the participants’ perspectives. Once collected, the data are analyzed inductively to generate findings.
Quantitative research techniques emphasize a priori categories to collect data in the form of numbers (Johnson & Christensen, 2000:17; McMillan & Schumacher, 2001:40). The goal is to provide statistical descriptions, relationships, and explanations (Johnson & Christensen, 2000:17; McMillan & Schumacher, 2001:40). In order to exploit the richness of the possible research findings, both qualitative and quantitative approaches are used in this study. In this study, Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE) test and mechanics marks derived from exam and tests were used to compare students’ performance in physics. Although the two instruments are used to assess understanding of mechanics, they differ because FMCE is a standardised test that measures students’ conceptual understanding and mechanics tests and exams evaluate the understanding using mostly questions that require students to calculate and/ or derive (see Appendix E). The exam question papers differ from one institution to another, however because of similar style of questions asked they are all regarded as uniform and hence used in this study.
FMCE questionnaire
The FMCE test (see Appendix C), like most other survey methods, is a paper and pencil test (McMillan & Schumacher, 2001:40) that “permits the collection of data from large numbers of respondents in relatively short periods and at relatively low costs” (Chadwick et al., 1984:100). The resulting test scores are used as data (McMillan & Schumacher, 2001:40). The FMCE is a multiple choice 48-question standardized test which was developed to evaluate student learning in introductory physics (Thornton & Sokoloff, 1998). A copy of this instrument was received from David R. Sokoloff in 2004. FMCE has been used to evaluate large numbers of students at many colleges, universities, and high schools mostly in the USA. Thornton and Sokoloff (1998) did an extensive controlled testing at the University of Oregon and Tufts University.
Amongst other questions from the FMCE that probe students’ views of force and motion concepts are the “Force Sled” questions (questions 1-7), the “Cart on Ramp” questions (questions 8-10), the “Coin Toss” questions (questions 11-13), and the “Force Graph” questions (questions 14-21) (Thornton & Sokoloff, 1998). The FMCE is very useful when comparisons among student answers on different set of questions are examined. This study also compares the performance of two groups of students in Physics I, i.e. those students who came through Foundation Physics (Foundation group) to those who gained straight entrance grades from Grade 12 (non-Foundation group). The understanding of force concepts is measured only after the students have been taught the mechanics module. Thornton and Sokoloff (1998) found that most students answered the Coin Toss questions and the Cart on Ramp questions in a non-Newtonian way even after they had answered most of the other questions on the FMCE in a Newtonian manner.
The study of conceptual understanding using FMCE conducted mainly in the USA showed “that introductory physics students do not commonly understand kinematics and dynamics concepts as a result of thorough traditional instruction” (Thornton & Sokoloff, 1998). However this thesis seeks to evaluate this instrument in a South African context by looking at the differences in performance among Foundation and non-Foundation groups of students. Students from the Universities of Oregon and Tufts were tested on FMCE before and after Active Learning Laboratories (Thornton Sokoloff, 1998). Thornton and Sokoloff (1998) indicate that the students performed poorly before Active Learning Laboratories.
Both interviews in this study are semi-structured and open ended. The student interview protocol (Appendix A) used in this research was adapted from Moore et al (2004). The interview protocol is open-ended, allowing the respondents the freedom of expressing themselves. In contrast to most surveys, open-ended interview protocols are designed to allow the respondent to speak freely about their experiences without being limited by predetermined response categories. Follow-up questions to get more insight into the respondent’s experiences are not prohibited.
The student interview protocol consists of questions about the respondents’ backgrounds, the Physics I course, how students experience the lecture, practicals, tutorials, topic-oriented approach, expectations, attitudes towards physics, skills acquired in class and laboratory, understanding of concepts, confidence, coping with the workload, role of tutors, lecturers and other students, general questions, and how Foundation Physics helped the Foundation group to cope with Physics I.
The Foundation Physics lecturer interview protocol (Appendix B) is comprised of 11 questions under the categories: the structure of the course, course content, relationship between Foundation Physics and Physics I, and some conceptual questions. The Foundation Physics lecturer interview gives more information on some of the issues that were not clarified by students in their respective focus groups.
Mechanics marks
The mark sheets were collected from the relevant mechanics lecturers with the permission of the Heads of Departments. The Physics I mechanics final examinations papers appear in Appendix E. Institution 1 failed to give the researcher its examination question paper. The types of questions asked at each institution are indicated in Table 3.1 below. These marks indicated the performance of students in the mechanics module. The purpose of these marks is to compare them with the performance of students in the FMCE test. Institution 1’s question paper consisted of questions asking students to derive and calculate. There are no questions that ask students about their conceptual understanding. Institution 4’s question paper also lacked conceptual questions. However there was a good representation of multiple choice questions that would have prepared the students for the FMCE test. Although Institution 3’s question paper lacked multiple choice questions, all the other categories were fully represented.

Chapter 1: Introduction 
1.2 Contributions of this thesis
1.3 Organization of this thesis
Chapter 2: Literature review 
2.1 Introduction
2.2 Government policy on mathematics and physical science
2.3 Physics in South Africa
2.4 Physics research institutes
2.5 Job opportunities for graduates in physics
2.6 Attitudes and beliefs of students
2.7 Students’ performance in mathematics and physical science
2.8 Rural and urban schools effect
2.9 Black and White schools effect
2.10 Language and science
2.11 Foundation Programmes
2.12 Foundation Physics and Physics I curricula
2.13 Teaching and learning physics
2.14 Summary
Chapter 3: Research Process and Methods 
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Study design
3.3 Study area
3.4 Participants
3.5 Instruments and data sources
3.6 Data collection methods
3.7 Ethical issues
3.8 Practical issues arising during the field work
3.9 Data analysis
Chapter 4: Mechanics Tests and Course Results 
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Respondent demographics
4.3 Respondent performance
4.4 Summary
Chapter 5: Interviews with students and lecturers 
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Grade 12 Physics background
5.3 What students aim to achieve with Physics
5.4 What students expected Physics I to be like
5.5 What helped students to understand Physics I
5.6 Lecture section and lecturers
5.7 The effectiveness of the lecture section
5.8 Discussions in class
5.9 How do discussions in class help students?
5.10 The practicals
5.11 Tutorials and tutors
5.12 Exercises, tests and exams
5.13 Students’ expectations and attitudes in Physics I
5.14 Acquired skills
5.15 Conceptual understanding
5.16 Students’ confidence
5.17 Physics workload
5.18 The role of Foundation Physics in learning Physics I
5.19 Foundation Physics Lecturer Interviews
5.20 Summary
Chapter 6: Conclusions 
6.1 Introduction
6.2 Research questions
6.3 Summary of the main findings
6.4 Limitations of the study
6.5 Recommendations for further research

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