Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Science Education

First Advisor

Dr. David Schuster

Second Advisor

Dr. David Rudge

Third Advisor

Dr. Alvin Rosenthal


Conceptual and Language Issues, Weight, Weightlessness, Free fall, Textbook analysis, Instructional desiør


Science education is an interdisciplinary field that has developed from and continues to rely on research in the fields of cognitive science, philosophy, psychology, sociology and history. This clearly reflects that learning and teaching can be studied from multiple perspectives. Despite these wide ranging roots, contemporary science education by and large is not informed by the work of research on linguistics, and in particular, the role of language in mediating conceptual understanding. The term “weight” has multiple meanings in both science and everyday language, and this unfortunately creates inherent difficulties for teaching and learning. The present study addresses a need in the field by studying the role of language in conceptual understanding of physics, specifically for “Weight”, “Weightlessness” and “Free Fall (WWFF).

Part of the study is devoted to the development of a theoretical position on how these terms should be used, a position that both informs an analysis of textbooks and the design and evaluation of a novel instructional approach. Textbooks are explored to investigate how they develop the concepts and use these terms in relation to the physics constructs involved. Results indicate that half of the textbooks introduce terms (e.g.,“weight”) before concepts and several textbooks inconsistently employ the ambiguous term “weight”. The extent to which textbooks address language issues and different meanings associated with the term “weight” is investigated. Results indicate that language issues are rarely explicitly addressed. The analysis documents that issues surrounding the use of language are hidden because these terms are not discussed in multiple physical situations. Large student learning gains, which are practically significant are observed using a novel instructional approach based on language and concepts. Students’ interpretations of WWFF after instruction reveals that they (students) are well conversant with the associated language problems. Finally, students’ and instructors’ views of the new instructional approach are investigated. Results indicate that students show contentment in learning that even experts disagree on how to communicate some concepts. Thus, students demonstrate both cognitive gains and intellectual satisfaction after going through the module. Comments from instructors likewise document that they prefer this novel approach.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access