Applying physics education research to the classroom


Concept inventories

Concept inventories are research-based assessments that aim to probe conceptual understanding. They usually consist of multiple-choice questions, which have been developed through rigorous scrutiny, much more than is commonly used for questions in textbooks or exams. They are typically used in research as pre and post-tests when a particular approach or teaching strategy is being evaluated. As they are intended to be used as research instruments, they need to be used cautiously and won’t be able to replace “normal” class questions. However, they provide a rich resource for physics education, particularly for teachers who are looking for ways to try to measure the impact of an intervention. They can also provide exemplars of well-targeted questions to probe understanding.


The most well-known concept inventory, covering Newtonian mechanics, is the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), which has been taken by over 50,000 students in the US as part of many research projects (Von Korff et al. 2016). Madsen, McKagan and Sayre (2017) have written a useful catalogue of different concept inventories in physics and their degree of research validation.

There are more than 60 research-based assessments across all topics in physics available through PhysPort (registration required), including the FCI. Some are aimed at US undergraduates, but many are suitable for secondary-school students. 

Submitted by James de Winter and Richard Brock

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