Published: May 9, 2019


Historically, much of physics education research has focused on whether students’ answers are correct or incorrect. This thesis presents a complementary perspective that moves beyond a dichotomous view of learning by valuing the messy, or complicated and varied, nature of students’ reasoning. We do so by investigating three aspects of student reasoning in quantum mechanics (QM)---ontological (pertaining to the nature of entities), epistemological (pertaining to the nature of knowledge or learning), and social (pertaining to collective reasoning). Through focusing on the kinds of reasoning that students are capable of, we value their creativity, identity, and engagement in our educational environments, in service of supporting and cultivating their learning of physics. 

First, we develop and present a framework to describe and distinguish between different ontological structures. We document students’ flexible use of ontologies in individual, collective, oral, and written reasoning. The demonstration of this flexible use of ontologies is novel for the PER community which has previously recognized the dynamic nature of ontologies, yet not elaborated on the different forms those dynamics can take. Further, we find that the way we ask questions can impact students’ ontological reasoning. These findings suggest that as instructors we should recognize and attend to the ways in which students can engage in flexible use of ontologies. Additionally, we argue that tentativeness and flexible use of ontologies can be productive for student learning. We present an example of how we can work to support students’ ontological reasoning through research-based curricular materials. 

Next, we conduct a study of students’ domain-specific epistemologies and observe that students report “epistemological splits” between classical and quantum physics. Students are more likely to consider quantum physics to be less tangible or less connected to the real world, and to perceive problem solving in QM to rely more heavily on math. We observe these epistemological splits across multiple institutional and instructional contexts. The existence and prevalence of these splits suggests that when attending to students’ views about the nature of knowing and learning physics, we should be cognizant of when we are treating “physics” as a monolithic domain. Further, we identify some of the reasons that students might report epistemological splits, and argue that these stances can reflect epistemological sophistication. We begin to investigate the impacts that individual instructors have on the development of students’ domain-specific epistemologies, raising questions for further study. 

Finally, we conduct a case study analysis of a group of students engaged in collaborative problem solving and identify epistemic stances toward group work as one factor that contributes to the social positioning of the students within the group. The analysis investigates the ways in which epistemology, sense making, and social dynamics are intertwined. The construct of epistemic stances toward group work is a novel contribution to the PER field, and the attention to the fine-grained social dynamics and the intertwining of multiple elements of students’ collective reasoning represents a new approach to the study of group work.