Do incoming student attitudes about physics predict performance gains in introductory physics courses?

Study Overview

This study explores how incoming attitudes towards physics predicts student performance in introductory physics. In our definition, “attitudes” reflect where students are in the novice-expert continuum with respect to how they regard concepts and processes in physics.

Other studies have found correlations between incoming student attitudes and performance, but this association could be due to the fact that those with higher incoming attitudes have more prior knowledge. This study controlled for differences in prior knowledge in order to overcome this ambiguity. In this step, we administer the Forced Concept Inventory (FCI) to incoming freshmen, an instrument that measures understanding of fundamental concepts in Newtonian physics.

To measure student attitudes in physics, our team is administered the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science (CLASS) survey at the beginning of each semester to see how students’ answers correlate with their performance throughout the course. CLASS measures how similar students are to experts in their perceptions of physics and their approaches to physics problems. For instance, CLASS asks questions that assess the extent to which students view physics as a series of disconnected pieces of information versus as a coherent whole. Other questions assess to what extent students are able to apply prior knowledge to solve novel problems and to what extent students seek to understand formulas or just memorize them.

Study Results

The results showed that when you control for prior knowledge, the relationship between course performance and attitudes are still significant. The attitude component that most strongly predicted performance was what we called the Learning Approach factor, which captures whether the student attempts to build conceptual understanding of physics or focuses on remembering facts and equations.


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

The team of researchers includes:

Michael J. Cahill, Project Manager, CIRCLE
Mark A. McDaniel, co-Director, CIRCLE; Professor, Psychological & Brain Sciences
Regina F. Frey, co-Director, CIRCLE; Florence E. Moog Professor of STEM Education
Michelle Repice, Research Assistant, CIRCLE; Assistant Director, Teaching Center
Mairin Hynes, Lecturer, Department of Physics; CIRCLE Fellow*
Jiuqing Zhao, Statistician, CIRCLE
Rebecca Trousil, past collaborator, formerly Department of Physics faculty

*Find out more about CIRCLE Fellows.


Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science (CLASS)

Forced Concept Inventory (FCI)