Tutorials in Introductory Physics

developed by: Lillian C. McDermott, Peter S. Shaffer and the Physics Education Group at UW

middle schoolhigh schoolintro collegeinter-mediateupper levelgrad school   other

 Intro College Calculus-based
calc based
 Intro College Algebra-based
alg based

Mechanics  Electricity / Magnetism  Waves / Optics  Thermal / Statistical  Modern / Quantum
Lecture - Large (30+ students)  Lecture - Small (<30 students)  Recitation/Discussion Session  Lab  Homework

What? Guided-inquiry worksheets for small groups in recitation section of intro calculus-based physics. Instructors engage groups in Socratic dialogue. Worksheets use Elicit-Confront-Resolve model: Questions elicit known student difficulties and help students confront and resolve these difficulties.

Why? Each tutorial is designed to carefully walk students through overcoming specific student difficulties, and goes through a rigorous process of research and redesign to show that it leads to student learning. They can be effective even if instructors don't understand the research behind them.

Why not? These tutorials are designed for calculus-based physics courses, and may not work as well with other populations. Some researchers think that their elicit-confront-resolve approach may give students a sense that their intuition about physics is always wrong and lead to decreased self-efficacy.

Example materials


Classroom video

Curriculum outline

Part I: Mechanics
Representations of motion
Acceleration in one dimension
Motion in two dimensions
Relative motion

Newton’s laws
Newton’s second and third laws

Energy and momentum
Work and changes in kinetic energy
Conservation of energy
Conservation of momentum in one dimension
Changes in energy and momentum

Rotational motion
Dynamics of rigid bodies
Equilibrium of rigid bodies
Conservation of angular momentum
Simple harmonic motion

Part II: Electricity and magnetism 

Electric field and flux
Gauss’ law
Electric potential difference

Electric circuits
A model for circuits Part: Current and resistance
A model for circuits Part: Potential difference
A model for circuits Part: Multiple batteries
RC circuits

Magnets and magnetic fields
Magnetic interactions

Lenz’ law
Faraday’s law and applications

Part III: Waves
Superposition and reflection of pulses
Reflection and transmission
Propagation and refraction of periodic waves
Electromagnetic waves

Part IV: Geometrical optics
Light and shadow
Plane mirrors
Curved mirrors and multiple reflections
Interpretation of ray diagrams
Convex lenses

Part V: Physical optics
Two-source interference
Wave properties of light
Multiple-slit interference
A model for single-slit diffraction
Combined interference and diffraction
Thin-film interference

Part VI: Selected topics
Pressure in a liquid

The ideal gas law
A microscopic model for an ideal gas
The first law of thermodynamics
Heat engines and the second law of thermodynamics

Modern physics: Waves and particles
Wave properties of matter
The photoelectric effect
Wave-particle duality

Modern physics: Special relativity
Events and reference frames
Measurement in special relativity
Electric and magnetic fields in multiple frames of reference

Student skills developed

Designed for:
  • Conceptual understanding
  • Using multiple representations
Can be adapted for:
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Making real-world connections
  • Metacognition

Instructor effort required

  • Medium

Resources required

  • TAs / LAs
  • Simple lab equipment
  • Cost for students
  • Tables for group work

Developer's website: UW Tutorials
Intro Article: L. McDermott, Oersted Medal Lecture 2001: "Physics Education Research-The Key to Student Learning", Am. J. Phys. 69 (11), 1127 (2001).

Tutorials in Introductory Physics come in a book published by Pearson. You can order them from Pearson or from Amazon. You can download a sample tutorial from PhysPort.


Gold Star Validation
This is the highest level of research validation, corresponding to:
  • both of the "based on" categories
  • at least 4 of the "demonstrated to improve" categories
  • at least 5 of the "studied using" categories
(Categories shown below)

Research Validation Summary

Based on Research Into:

  • theories of how students learn
  • student ideas about specific topics

Demonstrated to Improve:

  • conceptual understanding
  • problem-solving skills
  • lab skills
  • beliefs and attitudes
  • attendance
  • retention of students
  • success of underrepresented groups
  • performance in subsequent classes

Studied using:

  • cycle of research and redevelopment
  • student interviews
  • classroom observations
  • analysis of written work
  • research at multiple institutions
  • research by multiple groups
  • peer-reviewed publication