Elevator speech: Students’ discussions of forces and acceleration by means of a scale in an elevator





mechanics, students’ language use, group discussions, semantic waves


Students’ challenges in learning mechanics are well documented from test situations, and group discussions are considered a fruitful way to meet these challenges. In this paper, we present a study from an authentic teaching setting where upper secondary students in groups solve the task of calculating the acceleration of an elevator by means of a scale. The group work was audio recorded in three groups with different ability levels. Analysis was performed inductively using the analytical tool of semantic gravity and semantic waves. The results reveal multiple challenges solving the task, even among high-achieving secondary physics students. The study shows that for group discussions to be fruitful, students must be able to negotiate for meaning by alternating between different levels of semantic gravity. In this study, only the group consisting of relatively high-achieving students was able to do this. For the groups that did not succeed, this is found to be due to insufficient knowledge base, poor integration of the required concepts in their own language and inappropriate epistemological framing of the situation. It is concluded that more effort should be put into learning basic concepts than curricula and teaching traditions normally provide. This should include tasks carefully adapted to students’ ability, where students can practice alternation between levels of semantic gravity.


Alonzo, A. C., & Steedle, J. T. (2009). Developing and assessing a force and motion learning progression. Science Education, 93(3), 389–421. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.20303 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.20303

Angell, C., Guttersrud, Ø., Henriksen, E. K., & Isnes, A. (2004). Physics: Frightful, but fun. Pupils' and teachers' views of physics and physics teaching. Science Education, 88(5), 683–706. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.10141 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.10141

Bao, L., & Koenig, K. (2019). Physics education research for 21st century learning. Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Science Education Research, 1(1), 2. https://doi.org/10.1186/s43031-019-0007-8 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s43031-019-0007-8

Benckert, S., Petterson, S., Aasa, S., Johansson, O., & Norman, R. (2005). Gruppdiskussioner rundt kontextrika problem i fysik - Hur ska priblemen utformas? Nordina, 1(2), 36–50. https://doi.org/10.5617/nordina.481 DOI: https://doi.org/10.5617/nordina.481

Bigozzi, L., Tarchi, C., Falsini, P., & Fiorentini, C. (2014). ‘Slow Science’: Building scientific concepts in physics in high school. International Journal of Science Education, 36(13), 2221–2242. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2014.919425 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2014.919425

Bing, T. J., & Redish, E. F. (2009). Analyzing problem solving using math in physics: Epistemological framing via warrants. Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, 5(2), 020108. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.5.020108 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.5.020108

Brookes, D. T., & Etkina, E. (2009). ''Force,'' ontology, and language. Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, 5(1), 010110. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.5.010110 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.5.010110

Chi, M. T. H., Feltovich, P. J., & Glaser, R. (1981). Categorization and representation of physics problems by experts and novices. Cognitive Science, 5(2), 121–152. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0364021381800298 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog0502_2

Clement, J. (1982). Students’ preconceptions in introductory mechanics. American Journal of Physics, 50(1), 66–71. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.12989 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1119/1.12989

Coelho, R. L. (2012). Conceptual Problems in the Foundations of Mechanics. Science & Education, 21(9), 1337–1356. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-010-9336-x DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-010-9336-x

Duit, R., Schecker, H., Høttecke, D., & Niedderer, H. (2014). Teaching Physics. In N. G. Lederman & S. K. Abell (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Science (Vol. 2, pp. 434–456). Routledge.

Georgiou, H., Maton, K., & Sharma, M. (2014). Recovering Knowledge for Science Education Research: Exploring the “Icarus Effect” in Student Work. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 14(3), 252–268. https://doi.org/10.1080/14926156.2014.935526 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14926156.2014.935526

Halloun, I. A., & Hestenes, D. (1985). Common sense concepts about motion. American Journal of Physics, 53(11), 1056–1065. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.14031 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1119/1.14031

Heller, P., & Hollabaugh, M. (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups. American Journal of Physics, 60(7), 637–644. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.17118 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1119/1.17118

Heller, P., Keith, R., & Anderson, S. (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 1: Group versus individual problem solving. American Journal of Physics, 60(7), 627–636. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.17117 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1119/1.17117

Itza-Ortiz, S. F., Rebello, N. S., Zollman, D. A., & Rodriguez-Achach, M. (2003). The Vocabulary of Introductory Physics and Its Implications for Learning Physics. The Physics Teacher, 41(6), 330–336. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.1607802 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1119/1.1607802

Jerstad, P., Sletbak, B., Grimenes, A. A., Renstrøm, R., Holm, O. B., & Nymo, M. (2013). RomStoffTid 1 - Fysikk 1. Cappelen Damm.

Lee, Y.-J., & Wan, D. (2020). How Complex or Abstract Are Science Learning Outcomes? A Novel Coding Scheme Based on Semantic Density and Gravity. Research in Science Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-020-09955-5 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-020-09955-5

Lemke, J. L. (1990). Talking Science: Language, learning, and values. Ablex

Low, D., & Wilson, K. (2017). The role of competing knowledge structures in undermining learning: Newton's second and third laws. American Journal of Physics, 85(1), 54-65. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.4972041 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1119/1.4972041

Maton, K. (2013). Making semantic waves: A key to cumulative knowledge-building. Linguistics and Education, 24(1), 8–22. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.linged.2012.11.005 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.linged.2012.11.005

Mortimer, E., & Scott, P. (2003). Meaning making in secondary classrooms. Open University Press.

Redish, E. (2004). A Theoretical Framework for Physics Education Research: Modeling student thinking. arXiv: Physics Education.

Sabella, M. S., & Redish, E. F. (2007). Knowledge organization and activation in physics problem solving. American Journal of Physics, 75(11), 1017–1029. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.2746359 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1119/1.2746359

Scherr, R. E., & Hammer, D. (2009). Student Behavior and Epistemological Framing: Examples from Collaborative Active-Learning Activities in Physics. Cognition and Instruction, 27(2), 147–174. https://doi.org/10.1080/07370000902797379 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/07370000902797379

Stavrum, L. R., Bungum, B., & Persson, J. R. (2020). "Never at rest": developing a conceptual framework for descriptions of 'force' in physics textbooks. Nordina, 16(2), 16. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5617/nordina.7857

Taibu, R., Rudge, D., & Schuster, D. (2015). Textbook presentations of weight: Conceptual difficulties and language ambiguities. Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, 11(1), 010117. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.11.010117 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.11.010117

Touger, J. S. (1991). When words fail us. The Physics Teacher, 29(2), 90–95. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.2343227 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1119/1.2343227

Van Heuvelen, A. (1991). Learning to think like a physicist: A review of research‐based instructional strategies. American Journal of Physics, 59(10), 891–897. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.16667 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1119/1.16667

Williams, H. T. (1999). Semantics in teaching introductory physics. American Journal of Physics, 67(8), 670–680. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.19351 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1119/1.19351


Additional Files



How to Cite

Johansen, A., & Bungum, B. (2022). Elevator speech: Students’ discussions of forces and acceleration by means of a scale in an elevator. LUMAT: International Journal on Math, Science and Technology Education, 10(1), 23–48. https://doi.org/10.31129/LUMAT.10.1.1475