Article Review: Conceptual Change via Vicarious Learning in Physics

 The study, Conceptual Change Through Learning In An Authentic Physics Setting by Derek Muller and his peers at the University of Sydney looked into the effectiveness of students learning “vicariously,” or through other students. The study separated an introductory quantum mechanics class into two groups. The control group was presented a class worth of material via a video in a normal lecture fashion and the experiment group was presented a video where they watched a professor teach the material to a student in a 1 on 1 setting. A key part of the experiment video was that the student’s “alternative/incorrect conceptions” were presented, discussed and changed. The purpose of the study was to gather data on whether or not learning vicariously produces better results than a lecture. Students in both groups were tested before and after and it was found that the students in the experiment group performed better than those in the control group. I cannot come up with a better study to research the effect of vicarious learning but I wonder which variables effected the results. My experiences with learning align with the results and discussion of this study. Confusion for me comes from either a) the ignorance of specific information, or b) an incorrect model. When I have an incorrect thinking model it does not matter how much more information I receive, I will be confused until I fix my misconception. After re-reading this study and looking into Muller’s other work I am fascinated by this line of research and the results a longer research project (longer than one class period) would have.

The study has a foundation on previous cognitive psychology research. In 1997 Guzetti found that textbooks that discredit misconceptions are more effective in “promoting conceptual change than texts written in narrative or expository style.” (Derek Muller, 2007, p. 521) In 1985 Schunk and Hanson found that younger math students have a higher self-efficacy after watching a peer solve a problem. Possibly the largest influence of the study was that of the 1994 one on cognitive load. The idea of “cognitive load” is that learners can get distracted if there is too much going on. For example, “vicarious learning” could be distracting for learners. This research prompted the the main questions of the study and are:

      1. Can vicarious learning, despite the increase in cognitive load, be as effective as didactic modes of instruction?

      2. Can alternative conceptions, dialogue, and representation of a student on-screen encourage learners to consider their prior knowledge and reflect upon their learning?

      3. Can vicarious learning provide affective benefits like improving self efficacy or validating students’ concerns?

      4. Do students perceive this strategy as potentially helpful for fostering a question-asking environment in lecture?

I first wondered the effect the novelty of the video had on the students. Would students pay more attention simply because the video was different? If this is true then any video that was significantly different from the norm would have an effect. However, the novelty may have a negative effect based on cognitive load theory. Would the novelty of the study video distract from the physics concepts?

The results were that students in the experiment and control groups scored an average of 9.1 and 6.8 respectively on a post-class test. This suggests that learning vicariously is more effective than normal lectures for certain scenarios. I wonder what scenarios, information, and students are conducive to lectures and which are conducive to vicarious learning lectures. Other than “cognitive load” theory, I cannot suggest any reason why vicarious learning would not increase student efficacy, encourage metacognition and teach problem solving strategy unless it was poorly done. Therefore, I would suggest that any individual creating lecture videos should consider designing the format to use a vicarious learner.

My learning style seems conducive to vicarious learning. I find it a greater cognitive load to attempt engagement in a normal lecture because I am trying to identify my misconceptions while taking in new information on the subject. I am usually identifying the multiple hypothetical-models in my brain that I have created and trying to see which aligns best with the new information. This vicarious style seems filter some incorrect models for the learner and then provide the information that fits the model.

Despite my fascination of this study I acknowledge the potential pullback especially in higher level courses. Most people in college have succeeded their whole life in lecture-style settings and any change would be resisted. I have seen this resistance be distracting for students in Physics 101 and 102: Physics by Inquiry where students used an inquiry based textbook with student dialogues. I admit I hated analyzing the student dialogues at first. I thought they were in-efficient. I slowly became used to the new format of the course and became a proponent of the style after repeatedly leaving classic lectures as confused as I went in and repeatedly leaving PHY 101 & 102 feeling like I learned something. It is very frustrating to see yearly increases in tuition with little increase in quality of education. I have classes that haven’t changed since before computers were integrated into schools. I have no problem finding research in physics education but for some reason universities implement new ideas extremely slowly. The idea of learning vicariously would need to be researched much further before it was used over a semester however the results are very promising.


Derek Muller, D. A. M. (2007). Conceptual change through learning in an  authentic physics setting. Springer, 35(6), 519-533.

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