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This paper reports on a study of student understanding of the wave nature of matter in the context of the pattern produced by the diffraction and interference of particles. Students in first-year, second-year, and third-year physics courses were asked to predict and explain how a single change in an experimental setup would affect the pattern produced when electrons or other particles are incident on a single slit, double slit, or crystal lattice. The errors made by students after standard instruction indicated the presence of similar conceptual and reasoning difficulties at all levels. Among the most serious was an inability to interpret diffraction and interference in terms of a basic wave model. Other errors revealed a lack of a functional understanding of the de Broglie wavelength. Students often treated it as a fixed property of a particle, not as a function of the momentum. An important goal of this investigation was to provide a research base for the design of instruction to help students develop and apply a basic wave model for matter.
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