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During an investigation of student understanding of physical optics, we found that some serious difficulties that students have with this topic may be due, at least in part, to a lack of understanding of the nature of light as an electromagnetic wave. We therefore decided to look carefully at how students interpret the diagrammatic and mathematical formalism commonly used to represent a plane EM wave. The results of this research have guided the development and modification of tutorials that address some of the difficulties that we identified. These instructional materials are an example of how, within a relatively short time allotment, a curriculum developed on the basis of research can help students relate the concepts and formal representations associated with EM waves to physical phenomena.
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