What do they know? Investigating students’ ability to analyse experimental data in secondary physics education

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This paper explores students’ ability to analyse and interpret empirical data as inadequate data analysis skills and understandings may contribute to the renowned disappointing outcomes of practical work in secondary school physics. Selected competences, derived from a collection of leading curricula, are explored through interviews and practical tasks, each consisting of three probes. The 51 students, aged 15 and commencing post-compulsory science education in the Netherlands, were able to carry out basic skills such as collecting data and representing these. In interpreting the data in terms of the investigated phenomenon or situation however, performance was weak. Students often appeared to be unable to identify the crucial features of a given graph. Conclusions based on the data were often tautological or superficial, lacking salient features. Students failed to infer implications from the data, to interpret data at a higher level of abstraction, or to specify limitations to the validity of the analysis or conclusions. The findings imply that the students’ understanding of data-analysis should be developed further before they can engage successfully in more ‘open’ practical work. The study offers a collection of activities that may help to address the situation, suggesting a baseline for guided development of data analysis abilities.