A critical examination of “expert-like” in physics education research

Anna McLean Phillips, Christine O’Donnell

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference PaperResearch


The growing push to address the lack of diversity in physics has come with an array of curriculum reforms and interventions. There has been work in Physics Education Research (PER) that has supported these reforms, including studying the experiences and identity development of students from minoritized backgrounds. However, there has been a lack of critical reflection on the core methodologies and constructs used in PER. Here, we present a critical analysis of qualitative and quantitative work used to define and measure “expert-like” thinking, beliefs, and practices in physics. We show that this work has largely omitted any consideration of race or cultural backgrounds of participants, instead defining “experts” as either physics faculty or Ph.D. holders. Research in critical theory demonstrates that failing to intentionally address potential biases tends towards reinforcing those biases. Thus, work in PER on expert-like thinking may unintentionally replicate, rather than challenge, existing biased structures in physics. We conclude with recommendations for constructing more inclusive views of what it means for students to develop “expert-like” thinking.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPhysics Education Research Conference Proceedings
EditorsMichael B. Bennett, Brian W. Frank, Rebecca E. Vieyra
PublisherAmerican Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT)
Number of pages8
ISBN (Print)9780917853487
Publication statusPublished - 4 Oct 2021
Externally publishedYes
EventPhysics Education Research Conference, 2021: Making Physics More Inclusive and Eliminating Exclusionary Practices in Physics - Virtual, Online, United States of America
Duration: 4 Aug 20215 Aug 2021

Publication series

NamePhysics Education Research Conference Proceedings
ISSN (Print)1539-9028
ISSN (Electronic)2377-2379


ConferencePhysics Education Research Conference, 2021
Abbreviated titlePERC 2021
Country/TerritoryUnited States of America
OtherAs a gateway discipline to STEM majors and careers, physics plays a central role in deciding who does, and who doesn't, get to discover and pursue scientific careers. Technical and scientific professionals are rewarded with economic privilege and status which affords them both social and cultural power. Therefore, social justice will be realized only when the opportunity, and the choice, to excel in physics is open to all students. The culture and practices of the physics classroom reflect the culture of physics at large, which raises the question of how our professional physics communities can embrace, rather than inadvertently repel, a diverse group of academics that can help improve physics culture. To this end, the 2021 Physics Education Research Conference will focus on defining inclusive spaces and practices. Additionally, we will explore strategies for eliminating exclusionary practices in our classrooms, research spaces, and professional organizations. We call on the community to propose sessions that will drive conversations related to these initiatives throughout PERC 2021.
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