On the analytical engagement of social semiotics and variation theory in physics education research

Research output: ThesisLicentiate Thesis

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In this licentiate thesis, I explore how two theoretical frameworks—social semiotics and the variation theory of learning—used in physics education research, can be fruitfully combined to obtain additional analytical tools for analysing student learning in introductory level university physics. Each theoretical framework has on their own, or together with other frameworks, been successfully applied for analysing both individual and collective learning, but the combination of the two has yet not been fully explored. Social semiotics is concerned with the communication, using different semiotic resources (such as spoken and written language, mathematics, diagrams, gestures, and apparatus), between people within a certain discourse. Variation theory suggests that learning can only be successful if a person is able to discern the critical aspects of a phenomenon. This discernment is seen to be dependent on being exposed to purposeful variation within this aspect.

In order to study this analytical combination, I made use of two case studies; I studied (1) physics students’ understanding of plus (+) and minus (–) signs in a one-dimensional kinematics contexts; and, (2) students’ collective communication and learning progression in group work activities solving problems in circular motion. In both cases I explored how the concept of ‘relevance structure’ could be used analytically to understanding students’ learning challenges in physics. For the first case study I was able to identify four qualitative different categories of students’ individual relevance structure for of how students ‘read’ and ‘use’ these algebraic signs in this context. Through the analysis connected to the data set used for the second case study I was also able to identify two different approaches to viewing a circular motion problem—a static and dynamic approach—suggested to be the result of students’ ‘enacted relevance structure’, and also empirically show how social semiotics and variation theory could be analytically combined in a powerful way in qualitative analysis.

Conclusions that I can draw from the research presented in this thesis is that students’ relevance structure— what they perceive as being relevant—seem to have a high influence on students’ ability to discern disciplinary relevant aspects (DRAs) of the phenomenon which they are studying. I suggest that the relevance structure may act as a ‘filter’ for students to be able to make the appropriate disciplinary discernment even though they experience purposeful variation within a dimension of variation. From the research presented in this licentiate thesis, I have been able to identify and suggest both theoretical and methodological contributions to physics education research and I end this thesis with suggesting implications for teaching and learning, as well as making suggestions for future research.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • National Resource Centre for Physics Education
  • Eriksson, Urban, Supervisor
  • Pendrill, Ann-Marie, Assistant supervisor
  • Linder, Cedric, Assistant supervisor, External person
Award date2020 Jun 11
Place of PublicationLund
ISBN (Print)978-91-7895-502-2
ISBN (electronic) 978-91-7895-503-9
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Other Physics Topics

Free keywords

  • Social semiotics
  • Variation theory
  • Relevance structure
  • Dimensions of variation
  • Semiotic resources
  • Fysicumarkivet A:2020:Eriksson


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