Phenomenographic approach to understanding students’ learning in physics education

Jenaro Guisasola, Esmeralda Campos, Kristina Zuza, Genaro Zavala

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


[This paper is part of the Focused Collection on Qualitative Methods in PER: A Critical Examination.] Inquiring about students’ learning and their difficulties understanding the concepts and models of physics is a familiar challenge in physics education research. Researchers have developed various methodologies, such as phenomenography, to address it. Phenomenography is an empirical approach to determining how people experience and understand aspects of their surroundings and the physical world in qualitatively different ways. Rigorous phenomenographic analysis can be used to define categories to describe general ways the students experience the research phenomenon. The phenomenographic analysis process focuses on critical aspects of the collective experience rather than the richness of individual experience, assuming that there are a limited number of categories to describe the variations of experience for a given phenomenon. The possibility of defining a limited number of categories for experiencing a phenomenon on a collective level is one characteristic that makes phenomenographic analysis particularly appropriate for research that aims to enhance teaching and learning. We shall critically examine the strengths and weaknesses of phenomenographic research in this paper. The strengths include integral and holistic descriptions of people’s conceptions. Weaknesses include the risks of equating participants’ experiences with their descriptions of their own experiences. Our contribution weighs up the literature’s warnings about the validity and reliability of phenomenographic research. To provide an overview of phenomenography in physics education research, we conducted a literature review which identified and analyzed different approaches to data collection, data analysis, rigor, presentation of the results, and scope. We conclude by considering phenomenography as a research approach to learn how students perceive a concrete learning phenomenon, thus, providing an essential teaching design and preparation guide for instructors.

Original languageEnglish
Article number020602
JournalPhysical Review Physics Education Research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • General Physics and Astronomy


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