Research in Science Education

, Volume 49, Issue 5, pp 1177–1211 | Cite as

Refining Students’ Explanations of an Unfamiliar Physical Phenomenon-Microscopic Friction

  • Edgar De Guzman CorpuzEmail author
  • N. Sanjay Rebello


The first phase of this multiphase study involves modeling of college students’ thinking of friction at the microscopic level. Diagnostic interviews were conducted with 11 students with different levels of physics backgrounds. A phenomenographic approach of data analysis was used to generate categories of responses which subsequently were used to generate a model of explanation. Most of the students interviewed consistently used mechanical interactions in explaining microscopic friction. According to these students, friction is due to the interlocking or rubbing of atoms. Our data suggest that students’ explanations of microscopic friction are predominantly influenced by their macroscopic experiences. In the second phase of the research, teaching experiment was conducted with 18 college students to investigate how students’ explanations of microscopic friction can be refined by a series of model-building activities. Data were analyzed using Redish’s two-level transfer framework. Our results show that through sequences of hands-on and minds-on activities, including cognitive dissonance and resolution, it is possible to facilitate the refinement of students’ explanations of microscopic friction. The activities seemed to be productive in helping students activate associations that refine their ideas about microscopic friction.


Modeling Refinement of students’ models Scaffolding activities Conceptual change Teaching interview Transfer Microscopic friction 



This work was supported in part by the US National Science Foundation under Grant REC-0133621.

Supplementary material

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ESM 1 (DOCX 16 kb)
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhysicsUniversity of Texas Rio Grande ValleyEdinburgUSA
  2. 2.Department of Physics and AstronomyPurdue UniversityWest LafayetteUSA
  3. 3.Department of Curriculum and InstructionPurdue UniversityWest LafayetteUSA

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