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Comparing introductory and beyond-introductory students' reasoning about uncertainty

Cornell Affiliated Author(s)


E.M. Stump
M. Hughes
G. Passante
N.G. Holmes


This paper is part of the Focused Collection on Instructional labs: Improving traditions and new directions.] Uncertainty is an important concept in physics laboratory instruction. However, little work has examined how students reason about uncertainty beyond the introductory (intro) level. In this work we aimed to compare intro and beyond-intro students' ideas about uncertainty. We administered a survey to students at 10 different universities with questions probing procedural reasoning about measurement, student-identified sources of uncertainty, and predictive reasoning about data distributions. We found that intro and beyond-intro students answered similarly on questions where intro students already exhibited expert-level reasoning, such as in comparing two data sets with the same mean but different spreads, identifying limitations in an experimental setup, and predicting how a data distribution would change if more data were collected. For other questions, beyond-intro students generally exhibited more expertlike reasoning than intro students, such as when determining whether two sets of data agree, identifying principles of measurement that contribute to spread, and predicting how a data distribution would change if better data were collected. Neither differences in institutions, student majors, lab courses taken, nor research experience were able to fully explain the variability between intro and beyond-intro student responses. These results call for further research to better understand how students' ideas about uncertainty develop beyond the intro level. © 2023 authors. Published by the American Physical Society. Published by the American Physical Society under the terms of the ""Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Further distribution of this work must maintain attribution to the author(s) and the published article's title, journal citation, and DOI.

Date Published


Physical Review Physics Education Research





ISBN Number

24699896 (ISSN)



Alternate Journal

Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res.

Group (Lab)

Natasha Holmes Group

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