Mathematical competencies and the role of mathematics in physics education: A trend analysis of TIMSS Advanced 1995 and 2008

  • Trude Nilsen Department of Teacher Education and School Research
  • Carl Angell Department of Physics
  • Liv Sissel Grønmo Department of Teacher Education and School Research
Emneord (Nøkkelord): mathematics in physics, competence, TIMSS Advanced, algebra, trend analysis


As students advance in their learning of physics over the course of their education, the requirement of mathematical applications in physics-related tasks increases, especially so in upper secondary school and in higher education. Yet there is little empirical work (particularly large-scale or longitudinal) on the application of mathematics in physics education compared with the research related to the conceptual knowledge of physics. In order to clarify the nature of mathematics in physics education, we developed a theoretical framework for mathematical competencies pertinent to various physics tasks based on theoretical frameworks from mathematics and physics education. We used this synthesis of frameworks as a basis to create a model for physics competence. The framework also served as a tool for analyzing and categorizing trend items from the international large-scale survey, TIMSS Advanced 1995 and 2008. TIMSS Advanced assessed students in upper secondary school with special preparation in advanced physics and mathematics. We then investigated the changes in achievements on these categorized items across time for nations who participated in both surveys. The results from our analysis indicate that students whose overall physics achievement declined struggled the most with items requiring mathematics, especially items requiring them to handle symbols, such as manipulating equations. This finding suggests the importance of collaboration between mathematics and physics education as well as the importance of traditional algebra for physics education.


Trude Nilsen, Department of Teacher Education and School Research
KIS Stipendiat ved ILS, UV, UIO
Carl Angell, Department of Physics