The specificity effect: An example from refraction

David T. Brookes, Brian H Ross, Jose Mestre

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


In physics instruction we often begin by presenting students with an abstract principle, and then illustrating the principle with one or more examples. We hope that students will use the examples to refine their understanding of the principle and be able to transfer the principle to new situations. However, research in cognitive science has shown that students' understanding of a new principle may become bound up with the example(s) used to illustrate it. We report on a study with physics students to see if this "specificity effect" was present in their reasoning. The data show that even students who understand and can implement a particular physics principle have a strong tendency to discard that principle when the transfer task appears superficially similar to their training example.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publication2008 Physics Education Research Conference
Number of pages4
StatePublished - Dec 8 2008
Event2008 Physics Education Research Conference - Edmonton, Canada
Duration: Jul 23 2008Jul 24 2008

Publication series

NameAIP Conference Proceedings
ISSN (Print)0094-243X
ISSN (Electronic)1551-7616


Other2008 Physics Education Research Conference


  • Analogy
  • Optics
  • Physics education research
  • Refraction
  • Specificity effect

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physics and Astronomy(all)


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