Students’ preinstructional reasoning with the speed of light in relativistic situations

Authors Floor Kamphorst , M.J. Vollebregt , E.R. Savelsbergh , W.R. van Joolingen
Published in Physical Review Physics Education Research
Publication date 2019
Research groups Research group Science and Technology Education
Type Article


Special relativity theory (SRT) has recently gained popularity as a first introduction to “modern” physics thinking in upper level secondary physics education. A central idea in SRT is the absolute speed of light, with light propagating with uniform speed relative to the reference frame of the observer. Previous research suggests that students, building on their prior understandings of light propagation and relative motion, develop misunderstandings of this idea. The available research provides little detail on the reasoning processes underlying these misunderstandings. We therefore studied secondary education students’ preinstructional reasoning about the speed of light in a qualitative study, probing students’ reasoning through both verbal reasoning and drawing. Event diagrams (EDs) were used as a representational tool to support student reasoning. Results show that students productively use EDs to reason with light propagation. In line with previous research, we found two alternative reference frames students could use for uniform light propagation. Most students show a flexibility in their use of reference frame: They not only evaluate light propagation in their preferred frame of reference, but also relative to other frames. Some students experienced conflict between an alternative reference frame and the speed of light and changed their reasoning because of that. This finding suggests promising directions for designing education.


  • Elwin Savelsbergh | Professor | Research group Science and Technology Education
    E.R. Savelsbergh
    • Professor
    • Research groups: Research group Science and Technology Education

Language English
Published in Physical Review Physics Education Research
Year and volume 15 2
Key words secondary physics education, SRT, special relativity theory, student reasoning
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