Do active-learning pedagogies in introductory physics improve quantitative problem-solving performance compared to traditional instructional approaches?

Study Overview

While there have been studies on student learning attitudes and performance in physics, this is one of the first and most rigorous in examining quantitative problem-solving outcomes. This current problem-solving study grew out of a companion study that compared student conceptual gains and attitudinal changes in the introductory Active Physics and Traditional Physics courses. In that study, we found that the Active Physics course better cultivates students’ conceptual understanding, with students achieving significantly better gains on the Force Concept Inventory.

In this new study, we find that despite the strengths of Active Physics in improving students’ learning attitudes and conceptual learning, the outcomes with respect to problem solving are less conclusive. Active Physics presents problems couched in real-world contexts, whereas Traditional Physics tends to present multistep, quantitative problem solving.

Our assessment methodology was to present the same three problems, including “real-world” and “classic” multi-step problems, to Active Physics and Traditional Physics students, who were matched in prior knowledge. We hoped to learn how these different curricula promoted the ability to solve different types of problems.

Study Results

The results showed that the match between the focus of the class and the focus of the problems best predicted performance. Active Physics students surpass Traditional Physics students in solving problems couched in real-world contexts. By contrast, when it comes to classic Physics problems, Traditional Physics students perform significantly better or the same as students in Active Physics.

New Study Underway

To improve the multi-step quantitative problem solving in Active physics, curriculum changes were made in Fall 2016. In the 2015-2016 academic year, we assessed Active Physics students problem-solving skills to get a snapshot of performance before making adjustments to the course. These curricular changes have been implemented to support the development of problem-solving skills, and evaluations of these curricular changes were conducted.

Physics lecturer Mairin Hynes provides insight into these changes:

This new study is exciting because it lets us better understand not just whether or not students have learned the material, but how they approach and think about problem-solving. This allows us to target specific areas to work on in both physics lecture and lab to hopefully improve key problem-solving skills. We have identified key areas to emphasize through a comprehensive approach of in-class instruction and discussions, selection of homework problems, and feedback on homework and from TAs. We are thinking broadly, and have chosen skills that will help students not just in physics, but in other classes and in the real world, as well.

Our goal is to not just teach students physics, but to help them become scientifically literate. For example, since we emphasize solving real-world problems, it’s essential for students to be able to evaluate the plausibility of their result. This helps them build a better understanding of the quantities we work with. It’s also an invaluable skill for life in the real world. Whether a student is determining how much of something they need to buy at the store or reading an article in the paper, being able to judge if a value makes sense or not is a skill that will be useful long after specific physics equations may have been forgotten.


McDaniel, M. A., Stoen, S. M., Frey, R. F., Markow, Z. E., Hynes, K. M., Zhao, J., & Cahill, M. J. (2016). Dissociative conceptual and quantitative problem solving outcomes across interactive engagement and traditional format introductory physics. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(2), 020141.


At Washington University, this research was being conducted through a collaboration by CIRCLE, and the Department of Physics.

The team of researchers includes:

Mark A. McDaniel, co-Director, CIRCLE; Professor, Psychological & Brain Sciences
Regina F. Frey, co-Director, CIRCLE; Florence E. Moog Professor of STEM Education
Siera M. Stoen, Research Assistant, CIRCLE; PhD candidate, Department of Physics
Mairin Hynes, Lecturer, Department of Physics; CIRCLE Fellow*
Michael J. Cahill, Project Manager, CIRCLE
Jiuqing Zhao, Statistician, CIRCLE
Rebecca Trousil, past collaborator, formerly Department of Physics faculty
Zachary E. Markow, past collaborator, formerly Department of Physics undergraduate

*Find out more about CIRCLE Fellows.


Cahill, M. J., Hynes, K. M., Trousil, R., Brooks, L. A., McDaniel, M. A., Repice, M., Zhao, J., Frey, R. F. (2014). Multiyear, multi-instructor evaluation of a large-class interactive-engagement curriculum. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 10(2).