Date of Award

Spring 5-13-2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Physics and Astronomy

First Advisor

Dr. Cherilynn Morrow

Second Advisor

Dr. Bian Thoms


This study uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative enquiry to focus on determining the most salient factors that affect international students’ learning of introductory physics in Georgia State University. For purposes of the study, “international students” were defined as those who attended high school in a country other than the US. These students comprise a significant portion of the physics courses at Georgia State, and this study was motivated by the desire to support their success. The study involved a collaboration with the newly emerging Physics and Astronomy Education Research Group who has recently begun the routine collection of student learning data in all of its introductory physics courses. The factors considered in the research design were informed by the literature on student learning for all students while including the possibility of new factors emerging in interviews with international students. Factors probed included students’ previous study of mathematics, previous study of physics, language issues, pedagogical differences (i.e., style of teaching, classroom culture & environment) between GSU and the student’s country of origin. For international students who are proficient in English, classroom environment and culture (pedagogy) emerged as the most important factor. For International students who are not very proficient in English, language remains the most important factor. The effect of language issues on international students’ learning of physics turned out to be more complex than originally considered. Some students understood instructors differently depending on what country the students come from and on what country the instructor comes from. Instructor office hours and general accessibility for addressing questions emerged as especially important options for international students who felt uncomfortable asking questions in front of the whole class. An unanticipated outcome of the study was to discover how the vast differences in the structure of high school mathematics education in non-US countries has serious implications for the way we advise and query international students in physics vis-à-vis their academic background before entering Georgia State. Moreover, the study revealed that students who had taken a high school physics course generally scored no better than those who had not taken a high school course on a pre-test of conceptual knowledge in physics. However, students who had taken a physics class in high school had dramatically higher learning gains when given a post-test near the end of the Georgia State physics course. This phenomenon suggests that more consideration should be given to prior course-work in combination with a diagnostic pre-test to advise students about which math and physics courses to take when they arrive at Georgia State.