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Measurement Uncertainty in Undergraduate Physics: Student Misconceptions and Points of Difficulty

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Innovations in Teaching Physics or Engineering Physics II

Tagged Division

Engineering Physics & Physics

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1048.1 - 22.1048.7



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Paper Authors


Jeffrey A. Jalkio University of Saint Thomas

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Jeff Jalkio received his Ph.D in Electrical Engineering from the University of Minnesota and worked for thirteen years in industry in the fields of optical sensor design and process control. In 1984, he co-founded CyberOptics Corporation, where he led engineering efforts as Vice President of Research. In 1997 he returned to academia, joining the engineering faculty of the University of St. Thomas where he teaches courses in digital electronics, computing, electromagnetic fields, controls, and design.

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Measurement Uncertainty in Undergraduate Physics – Student Misconceptions and Points of DifficultyAbstractOne key concept in physics is that a measurement always has an associateduncertainty. This paper examines several observed student misconceptions aboutthis concept, discusses the difficulties encountered in overcoming thesemisconceptions, and suggests some possible alternative solutions. Prior work inthis area by Saalih Allie and Andy Buffler of the University of Capetown and FredLubbin of the University of York has shown that students often enter college withthe notion that scientific measurements are exact and that “measurement error” isdue to a fault on the part of the experimenter. Students also often believe thatuncertainty is a concept that arises in physics only in the context of quantummechanics and have misunderstandings of the Heisenberg uncertainty principlethat can be difficult to overcome.These problems are often exacerbated by misconceptions regarding statistics.Even when students in introductory physics classes are able to perform basicstatistical calculations, they frequently have weak conceptual understanding ofprobability and statistics. In particular, they struggle to apply statistics to theinterpretation of experimental results.In this paper, we survey solutions to these problems that have been proposed byauthors in the past and suggest a possible approach that combines these solutionswith ideas on teaching statistics and best practices from physics educationresearch.

Jalkio, J. A. (2011, June), Measurement Uncertainty in Undergraduate Physics: Student Misconceptions and Points of Difficulty Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18329

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