Natasha Holmes

Associate Professor


My lab studies teaching and learning in physics and other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses. We study research questions such as how students acquire skills or content knowledge, how different course environments affect student learning motivation, or persistence in physics (or other STEM fields), or how they develop an understanding of the nature of science and scientific measurement. We spend considerable time worrying about how we know what outcomes are being achieved and what mechanisms are responsible those outcomes. We use both qualitative (e.g. observations, interviews, and focus groups) and quantitative methods (e.g. test scores, instances of pre-defined actions or activities) to explore the many possible variables that affect student learning and their experiences in physics and STEM courses.

Research Focus

Our largest research focus is on the efficacy of hands-on laboratory courses. Our research questions in this area focus on: How do we know what labs are achieving (assessment)? What teaching methods improve outcomes (pedagogy)? By probing these two research questions, we also aim to better understand what labs should be aiming to achieve (learning goals).

Assessment: We have developed a closed-response instrument (like a multiple-choice test) to assess students’ critical thinking skills as related to introductory physics lab courses and are developing an analogous instrument for ecology courses. We are currently analyzing large assessment data sets to understand how different students in various courses develop critical thinking skills. There are also several additional ongoing assessment projects aiming to understanding what students are getting out of lab courses.

Pedagogy: We conduct both small and large scale experiments to test the impacts of different teaching methods on student learning, attitudes and motivation, and skills development. Small scale projects include evaluating a single learning activity in an interview or classroom setting. Larger scale projects include redesigning an entire course or course sequence using new or evidence-based teaching methods to achieve different learning outcomes.

Other interests: Our lab also explores student reasoning and understanding more broadly. This includes evaluating learning through technology, how students make sense of statistics, data analysis, and measurement uncertainty. We are also interested in understanding how and why students choose and persist in their major of study. This area focuses especially on underrepresented groups in STEM. Lastly, we are also interested in exploring the relationship between coursework and student research experiences. Given their well-documented benefits, understanding the mechanisms and characteristics of undergraduate research experiences could help inform other classroom teaching (especially labs).

Graduate Students

Matthew Dew
Rebeckah Fussell
Emily Stump
Meagan Sundstrom
Cole Walsh


Smith, E. M., & Holmes, N. G. (2021). Best practice for instructional labs. Nature Physics 2021, 1–2.

Smith, E. M., Stein, M. M., Walsh, C., & Holmes, N. G. (2020). Direct Measurement of the Impact of Teaching Experimentation in Physics Labs. Physical Review X, 10(1), 011029.

Quinn, K. N., Kelley, M. M., McGill, K. L., Smith, E. M., Whipps, Z., & Holmes, N. G. (2020). Group roles in unstructured labs show inequitable gender divide. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 16(1), 010129.

Smith, E. M., Stein, M. M., & Holmes, N. G. (2020). How expectations of confirmation influence students’ experimentation decisions in introductory labs. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 16(1), 010113.

Walsh, C., Quinn, K. N., Wieman, C., & Holmes, N. G. (2019). Quantifying critical thinking: Development and validation of the physics lab inventory of critical thinking. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 15(1), 010135.

Holmes, N. G., & Wieman, C. E. (2018). Introductory physics labs: We can do better. Physics Today, 71(1), 38–45.

Holmes, N. G., Wieman, C. E., & Bonn, D. A. (2015). Teaching critical thinking. PNAS, 112(36), 11199–11204.