Pre-Service Physics Teachers’ Difficulties in Understanding Special Relativity Topics

  • Pervin Unlu Yavas
  • Hasan Sahin Kizilcik


The aim of this study is to identify the reasons why pre-service physics teachers have difficulties related to special relativity topics. In this study conducted with 25 pre-service physics teachers, the case study method, which is a qualitative research method, was used. Interviews were held with the participants about their reasons for difficulties in understanding special relativity topics. We used content analysis with the interview data and created eight categories. By doing so, we tried to identify the causes of difficulties experienced by the participants. As a result, it can be said that students are biased against relativity subjects and consider them to be difficult. Although the students found the subject interesting, problems such as mathematical difficulties, problems related to determining the reference system and transition from classical physics to relativistic physics made the learning process difficult for them. Additionally, we identified positive and negative opinions about the teaching method.


Al-Khalili, J. (2003). Time travel: separating science fact from science fiction. Physics Education, 38(1), 14-19.
Altunışık, R., Coşkun, R., Yıldırım, E. & Bayraktaroğlu, S. (2002). Sosyal Bilimlerde Araştırma Yöntemleri (Research Methods in Social Sciences). (2nd.ed.). Adapazarı: Sakarya Kitabevi.
Arriassecq, I. & Greca, I. M. (2012). A teaching–learning sequence for the special relativity theory at high school level historically and epistemologically contextualized. Science & Education, 21, 827–851.
Aslan, O. (2009). Fen ve teknoloji öğretmenlerinin bilimin doğası hakkındaki görüşleri ve bu görüşlerin sınıf uygulamalarına yansımaları (Science and technology teachers' views on nature of science and the reflexions of these views on classroom activities). Unpublished PhD. Dissertation. Ankara: Gazi Üniversitesi, Eğitim Bilimleri Enstitüsü.
Aslanides, J. S. & Savage, C. M. (2013). Relativity concept inventory: Development, analysis, and results. Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, 9, 010118. doi:10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.9.010118
Born, M. (1962). Einstein's theory of relativity. New York: Dover.
Cacioppo, R. & Gangopadhyaya, A. (2012). Barn and pole paradox: revisited. Physics Education, 47(5), 563-567.
Carr, D. & Bossomaier, T. (2011). Relativity in a rockfield: A study of physics learning with a computer game. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 27(6), 1042-1067.
Cornier, S. & Steinberg, R. (2010). The twin twin paradox: Exploring student approaches to understanding relativistic concepts. The Physics Teacher, 48, 598-601.
Dimitriadi, K. & Halkia, K. (2012). Secondary students’ understanding of basic ideas of special relativity. International. Journal of Science Education, 34(16), 2565-2582.
Feynman, R. P. (1997). Six not-so-easy-pieces Einstein’s relativity, symmetry, and space-time. California: Perseus Books.
Franklin, J. (2010). Lorentz contraction, Bell’s spaceships and rigid body motion in special relativity. European. Journal of Physics, 31, 291-298.
Guisasola, J., Solbes, J., Barragues, J. J., Morentin, M. & Moreno, A. (2009). Students’ understanding of the special theory of relativity and design for a guided visit to a science museum. International Journal of Science Education, 31(15), 2085-2104.
Hecht, E. (2009). Einstein on mass and energy. American Journal of Physics, 77, 799-806.
Henriksen, E. K., Berit Bungum, B., Angell, C., Tellefsen, C.W., Frågåt, T. & Bøe, M.V. (2014). Relativity, quantum physics and philosophy in the upper secondary curriculum: challenges, opportunities and proposed approaches. Physics Education, 49(6), 678-684.
Ireson, G. (1996). Relativityat A-level: A looking glass approach. Physics Education, 31(65), 356–361.
Kortemeyer, G., Fish, J., Hacker, J., Kienle, J., Kobylarek, A., Sigler, M., Cheu, R., Kim, E., Sherin, Z., Sidhu, S. & Tan, P. (2013). Seeing and experiencing relativity – A new tool for teaching. The Physics Teacher, 51, 460-461.
Kraus, U. (2008). First-person visualizations of the special and general theory of relativity. European. Journal of Physics, 29, 1–13.
Lincoln, Y. S. & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
McGrath, D., Wegener, M., McIntyre, T.J., Savege, C. & Williamson, M. (2010). Student experiences of virtual reality: A case study in learning special relativity. American Journal of Physics, 78(8), 862-868.
Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research case study applications in education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Ogborn, J. (2005). Introducing relativity: less may be more. Physics Education, 40(3), 213-222.
Okun, L.B. (1989). The concept of mass. Physics Today, 42, 31-6
Özcan, Ö. (2011). Pre-service physics teachers’ problem solving approaches in special theory. Hacettepe University Journal of Education, 40, 310-320.
Savage, C.M., Searle, A. & Mc Calman, L. (2007). Real time relativity: Exploratory learning of special relativity. American Journal of Physics, 75(9), 791-798.
Scherr, R. E., Shaffer, P. S. & Vokos, S. (2001). Student understanding of time in special relativity: Simultaneity and reference frames. Phys. Educ. Res., Am. J. Phys. Suppl., 69, 24-35.
Scherr, R. E., Shaffer, P. S. & Vokos, S. (2002). The challenge of changing deeply held student beliefs about the relativity of simultaneity. American Journal of Physics, 70, 1238-1248.
Scherr, R. E. (2007). Modeling student thinking: An example from special relativity. American Journal of Physics, 75, 272-280. doi: 10.1119/1.2410013
Selçuk, G.S. (2011). Addressing pre-service teachers' understandings and difficulties with some core concepts in the special theory of relativity. European Journal of Physics, 32, 1–13.
Serway, R. A. & Beichner R. J. (2000). Physics for scientists and engineers with modern physics, (5th.ed.). Saunders, Orlando, FL.
Singh, S. P., Singh, A. & Hareet, P. (2011). The redshifts in relativity, European Journal of Physics Education 2(2), 24-48.
Singh, S.P. (2013). How The Laser Helped to Improve the Test of Special Theory of Relativity?, European Journal of Physics Education 4(2), 14-27.
Smith, G. S. (2011). Visualizing special relativity: the field of an electric dipole moving at relativistic speed. European Journal of Physics, 32, 695–710.
Strauss, A. L. & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Nwebury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Ünlü, P., İngeç¸ Ş.K, Budak, M. G. & Avcı, D. E. (2014). Fizik 4 modern fizik (Physics 4 modern physics). Ankara: Anı Yayıncılık.
Villani, A. & Pacca, J. L. A. (1987). Students’ spontaneous ideas about the speed of light. International Journal of Science Education, 9, 55–66.
Villani, A. & Arruda, S. M. (1998). Special theory of relativity, conceptual change and history of science. Science & Education, 7, 85-100.
Wegener, M., McIntyre, T. J., McGrath, D., Savage, C. M. & Williamson, M. (2012). Developing a virtual physics world. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 28(3), 504-521.
Yıldırım, A. & Şimşek, H. (2006). Sosyal Bilimlerde Nitel Araştırma Yöntemleri (Qualitative Research Methods in Social Sciences). Fifth Edition, Ankara: Seçkin Yayıncılık.
Yıldız, A. (2012). Prospective teachers' comprehension levels of special relativity theory and the effect of writing for learning on achievement. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 37(12), 15-28.
Yin, R. Y. (1984). Case study research: Design and methods. Second Edition, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publication.
How to Cite
YAVAS, Pervin Unlu; KIZILCIK, Hasan Sahin. Pre-Service Physics Teachers’ Difficulties in Understanding Special Relativity Topics. European Journal of Physics Education, [S.l.], v. 7, n. 1, p. 13-24, feb. 2017. ISSN 1309-7202. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 02 dec. 2023.