How tension arises and disperses during group-work in physics

Ayush Gupta (they/them/theirs)
3 min readAug 8, 2018

I have been rather fortunate to be able to work with Erin Ronayne Sohr in the past few years, first in her role as a graduate student and now as a post-doc. Erin joined our project on how students learn quantum mechanics in 2014 or so, and we got to design some tutorials together. As she conducted focus groups with students, she started noticing that some of the interactions between students were really tense. And she noticed how the work of learning was not only in focusing on the content of physics, or even on their manner in which they approached problem-solving in a moment, but also in managing interpersonal interactions and attending to one another’s emotions. Sometimes, as the tension in a group grew, some participants would want to curtail that discussion, even if they haven’t resolved the conceptual issue at heart. Sometimes, students would say things that, to us, seem epistemological: for example, someone would note that we just have to do the math, and that’s that. Erin was making the case, that while these statements look like they are about the nature of math in quantum physics, they arose in moments of interpersonal tension and functioned to disperse that tension. We dubbed that phenomenon, “Escape Hatch.” It was, as if, when things got too heated up, folks would abandon that discussion (take an escape hatch) to protect their interpersonal relations.

We did some really close analysis of participants’ gestures, posture, aspects of their speech (content, but also hedge words, how they took turns to talk, who cut of whom, intonations, etc.) to try to map out the ups and downs of tension (and emotion more broadly), of conceptual ideas, anything they said about math or the nature of physics, and, of course, interaction patterns. And we make the argument that these aspects of people’s reasoning during group-work are really entangled. If we do not attend to the entangled nature of it all, we could mis-attribute why someone is saying what they are saying, or acting the way they are.

It might seem like taking an escape hatch would be unproductive — that they abandoned the conceptual inquiry — but sometimes, doing so actually helped the group in relieving the tension and allowing them to revisit their conceptual inquiry.

We ended up writing a lot about what this might mean for instruction and curriculum design, but unfortunately, this had to be cur down a lot in the review process to fit the manuscript within acceptable word limits.

I feel so grateful that I get to work with Erin and with Andy Elby (also co-author on this work) and get to observe and learn from their humility and grace.

(And yes, part of the purpose of telling this story is also to highlight the manuscript itself. In part, it is shameless promotion, but I am owning it 😀 So … .here’s the link:

Taking an escape hatch: Managing tension in group discourse
Erin Ronayne Sohr Ayush Gupta Andrew Elby
First published in Science Education: 28 May 2018

Originally published at on August 8, 2018.



Ayush Gupta (they/them/theirs)

I do education research. Interested in emotions, ideology, epistemology, identity, values, ethics, and learning …