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“Why Am I Not Getting This?” Feelings of Competence Among Young Women in Physics and Strategies to Strengthen These

Lindsay Mainhood, M.Ed., OCT, current research assistant at Queen’s University

As a physics teacher, have you heard your students question their competence in physics? Have you heard them doubt their competence, or even express defeat in understanding physics? For reasons that may be obvious, such feelings among students can be adverse to their success and continuation in physics. Such feelings among young women can be understood as particularly detrimental on the journey toward gender equity in physics.

To explain why feeling competent is an important aspect of students’ success in physics, a research-based rationale is helpful to consider. Physics identity, a concept suggested by Hazari, Brewe, Goertzen, & Hodapp, can be described as the extent to which someone feels like they are a “physics person” (2017, p. 96). A strong physics identity is dependent on the development of four feelings (interest, competence, performance, and recognition). The importance of students’ development of physics identity is substantiated by the fact that physics identity has been shown to strongly predict students’ academic success in physics (Bliuc, Ellis, Goodyear, & Hendres, 2011) and career choice (Hazari, Sonnert, Sadler, & Shanahan, 2010). Feelings of competence, one component of physics identity, are the focus of the article. Competence can be defined as the feeling of being capable of understanding physics concepts.

In this article I share my research study’s findings related to young women’s feelings of competence during their high school physics education. This article’s aim, then, is to connect teachers to their students’ feelings of competence, or lack thereof, and to underscore the importance of helping students to feel competent for success and continuation in physics. Finally, I offer practical recommendations for teachers to help support feelings of competence in students in the physics classroom.

The study
Findings discussed in this article come from a qualitative research study that aimed to understand the experience of barriers in high school physics education for young women in Ontario. In the study there were nine women who took physics during high school; they now study in a variety of university programs. The women participated in focus group sessions and individual interviews where discussions were had about their experiences in high school physics. It was found that participants’ beliefs and feelings of competence changed during their physics courses; not one participant had beliefs of competence that remained entirely strong or weak throughout the duration of their high school physics education experiences. Although a range of feelings existed, a summary of students’ feelings is most easily presented here within the categories “feeling competent” and “not feeling competent.” Throughout the remainder of the article you will find direct quotations that I have used in my best effort to preserve the voices of the participants who shared their experiences.

Feeling Competent
General feelings of competence among the women, especially near the beginning of their physics courses, included the condition that “competency would come with hard work.” For most participants, their view was that although physics would be “a big learning curve” and not “something natural and intuitive,” they generally felt they “would do O.K.” The young women who were most confident going into physics often carried over their beliefs in their competence in mathematics to physics. Some women remembered “feeling really smart” while in physics class, “especially [when] explaining it to other people.” One said she felt like she was “a really serious scientist.” These types of feelings in students indicate a certain level of identification as a competent physics person.

In order to feel competent, participants explained that it was helpful to learn by “discussion,” “talking,” and “wrestling with ideas.” They also found that, as students, they “definitely had to practice,” because they believed that a physics student cannot “actually understand anything in physics until you apply it in a question.” They discussed how having lots of questions about the material is, in actuality, an indicator of grasping the material. One participant gave a wonderful example of a time she felt entirely competent in physics, at her Grade 12 physics exam. These are her words describing the experience:

I remember loving it. It was so weird. I sat there in the exam and was [thinking] this is the coolest puzzle! You know when you get it, and it all fits? It was the best feeling.

While this example paints a picture of a student who felt ownership of her physics competence, she did not feel as competent throughout her whole physics learning experience in high school, and not all students do reach this point in believing that they are competent in physics.

Not Feeling Competent
The lack of feeling competent for participants posed a barrier to their strong identification as a physics person and ultimately to their success and continuation in physics. Not feeling competent in high school physics was often the greatest influence on participants’ decision to stop studying physics. For many, not feeling competent in a subject occurred for the first time in their education when they took physics. Generally not feeling competent in physics began for many young women before taking a physics course, even for those who believed they were very strong students; in fact, all participants agreed they “knew it was different than the other sciences.” Their perceptions of high school physics included, “Before [physics] there was nothing similar,” “It was uncharted territories,” and “[there is] nothing to prepare you for how to think [in physics], it’s kind of like being thrown into the deep end to learn how to swim.” Throughout our discussions, such comments demonstrated that the young women viewed their abilities in physics differently than in other subjects. Below, I have outlined some experiences shared by participants in which they faced challenges to feeling competent:

Challenges to understanding and feeling competent
  • Physics demanded a new type of learning that was different than regurgitation of facts;
  • Harder to gauge own understanding in physics compared to other courses;
  • Steep learning curve because of difficult concepts, needing to “wrap your head around” concepts;
  • Panic set in with feelings of “not getting it”;
  • Confidence plummeted as first few concepts were not understood;
  • Falling behind very quickly and unable to catch up when class moved on;
  • 10-hour time periods were spent working at projects with ultimately unsuccessful outcomes.
Challenges to competence in problem solving
  • Math anxiety;
  • Source of panic was the inability to see a clear path to solve or begin a problem.
Specific classroom experiences that decreased feelings of competence
  • Mental math contest against teacher brought about gender-based feelings of low ability;
  • Material- and concept-specific jokes made by teacher singled out students who did not understand the physics behind the joke;
  • Accepting the need for extra help in class, at lunch, or from a tutor outside of school solely for physics;
  • Inability to compose a question to help with learning due to (a) not knowing what to ask, or (b) avoiding having to “admit defeat”:
    “ . . . if you don’t know enough to ask a question. I just didn’t know what questions to ask, so I didn’t ask.”
    That’s also really hard to do, to admit defeat. To admit that you don’t know what’s going on and to go up and ask for help, it takes a lot of guts.”
Emotions as barriers to feeling competent
  • A sense of failure/defeat;
  • Frustration and feelings of discouragement;
  • A feeling of helplessness;
  • Having a fixed mindset:
    “You encounter something that you can’t really wrap your head around right away, or it doesn’t really come naturally to you, and then you just shut down instead of working past it, that’s a fixed mindset.”
Students’ meaning-making of their feelings of low competence
  • Negative perception of self as a physics person:
    “Not very competent,” “so incompetent,” and “very incompetent”
    “After I took physics, [my perception] was that I wasn’t good at it and that was O.K. with me.”
  • Negative perception of experience and thus less desire to study physics:
    “It very much had a negative impact on me. Because all of a sudden I was like, ‘O.K., I guess I’m not really as good at this as I thought, I will change my plans for university.’ It really brought me down, so by the end of my high school experience it was pretty awful. I just really did not feel good about [physics] at all.”
Conclusion and Recommendations
As evidenced above, not feeling competent in high school physics was found to be a major barrier to young women identifying as confident and capable physics people. Participants attributed a lot of meaning to their feelings of low competence; ultimately their high school physics experiences played a role in determining whether the women would pursue further physics education or a career in physics. For myself as a researcher and teacher, learning about young women physics students’ feelings was very powerful. I was struck by the depth of students’ feelings that remain hidden from teachers (and often anyone else). It is my hope that other teachers can be reminded to ask and hear students’ voices about their beliefs in their own competence in physics. It is important that young women leave high school physics education believing they are and can continue to be competent in physics. The following steps are recommended to teachers to help support young women’s feelings and beliefs of competence in physics:

  • Take sufficient time to develop students’ ability to think conceptually;
  • Continually portray understanding physics as an attainable goal;
  • Frame learning as an ongoing process;
  • Regularly check in with students about how well they are understanding and how well they feel or think they are understanding;
  • Provide opportunities to practice applying physics concepts;
  • Allow students to discuss and wrestle with ideas with peers;
  • Avoid competition in the classroom;
  • Offer students extra help (with time in class and outside of class, or with alternative resources).
Since feeling competent is one component of physics identity, this component is important to foster in students for the added reason of not hindering other feelings that contribute to students’ physics identity (interest, performance, and recognition). This article follows from a previous article that focuses on helping teachers foster feelings of interest in young women; it can be found here.

Continued thanks are due to the nine generous women who recalled and told stories of their experiences in high school physics and contributed to the development of the above recommendations.

  • A. M. Bliuc, R. A. Ellis, P. Goodyear, and D. M. Hendres. Understanding student learning in context: Relationships between university students’ social identity, approaches to learning, and academic performance. Eur. J. Psychol. Educ., 26:417–433, 2011.
  • Hazari, Z., Brewe, E., Goertzen, R. M., & Hodapp, T. (2017). The importance of high school physics teachers for female students’ physics identity and persistence. The Physics Teacher, 55(2), 96–99. doi:10.1119/1.4974122
  • Hazari, Z., Sonnert, G., Sadler, P. M., & Shanahan, M. C. (2010). Connecting high school physics experiences, outcome expectation, physics identity, and physics career choice: A gender study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47, 978–1003.

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