Exploring the Neural Mechanisms of Physics Learning

Jessica E Bartley, Florida International University


This dissertation presents a series of neuroimaging investigations and achievements that strive to deepen and broaden our understanding of human problem solving and physics learning. Neuroscience conceives of dynamic relationships between behavior, experience, and brain structure and function, but how neural changes enable human learning across classroom instruction remains an open question. At the same time, physics is a challenging area of study in which introductory students regularly struggle to achieve success across university instruction. Research and initiatives in neuroeducation promise a new understanding into the interactions between biology and education, including the neural mechanisms of learning and development. These insights may be particularly useful in understanding how students learn, which is crucial for helping them succeed. Towards this end, we utilize methods in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), as informed by education theory, research, and practice, to investigate the neural mechanisms of problem solving and learning in students across semester-long University-level introductory physics learning environments. In the first study, we review and synthesize the neuroimaging problem solving literature and perform quantitative coordinate-based meta-analysis on 280 problem solving experiments to characterize the common and dissociable brain networks that underlie human problem solving across different representational contexts. Then, we describe the Understanding the Neural Mechanisms of Physics Learning project, which was designed to study functional brain changes associated with learning and problem solving in undergraduate physics students before and after a semester of introductory physics instruction. We present the development, facilitation, and data acquisition for this longitudinal data collection project. We then perform a sequence of fMRI analyses of these data and characterize the first-time observations of brain networks underlying physics problem solving in students after university physics instruction. We measure sustained and sequential brain activity and functional connectivity during physics problem solving, test brain-behavior relationships between accuracy, difficulty, strategy, and conceptualization of physics ideas, and describe differences in student physics-related brain function linked with dissociations in conceptual approach. The implications of these results to inform effective instructional practices are discussed. Then, we consider how classroom learning impacts the development of student brain function by examining changes in physics problem solving-related brain activity in students before and after they completed a semester-long Modeling Instruction physics course. Our results provide the first neurobiological evidence that physics learning environments drive
the functional reorganization of large-scale brain networks in physics students. Through this collection of work, we demonstrate how neuroscience studies of learning can be grounded in educational theory and pedagogy, and provide deep insights into the neural mechanisms by which students learn physics.

Subject Area

Educational evaluation|Neurosciences|Education

Recommended Citation

Bartley, Jessica E, "Exploring the Neural Mechanisms of Physics Learning" (2018). ProQuest ETD Collection for FIU. AAI27736451.