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Context affects student thinking about sources of uncertainty in classical and quantum mechanics

Cornell Affiliated Author(s)


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


Measurement uncertainty is an important topic in the undergraduate laboratory curriculum. Previous research on student thinking about experimental measurement uncertainty has focused primarily on introductory-level students' procedural reasoning about data collection and interpretation. In this paper, we extended this prior work to study upper-level students' thinking about sources of measurement uncertainty across experimental contexts, with a particular focus on classical and quantum mechanics contexts. We developed a survey to probe students' thinking in the generic question "What comes to mind when you think about measurement uncertainty in [classical/quantum] mechanics"as well as in a range of specific experimental scenarios and interpreted student responses through the lens of availability and accessibility of knowledge pieces. We found that limitations of the experimental setup were most accessible to students in classical mechanics while principles of the underlying physics theory were most accessible to students in quantum mechanics, even in a context in which this theory was not relevant. We recommend that future research probe which sources of uncertainty experts believe are relevant in which contexts and how instruction in both classical and quantum contexts can help students draw on appropriate sources of uncertainty in classical and quantum experiments. © 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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