Content knowledge or pedagogical content knowledge - what does a good teacher need?

June 26, 2023

Developing a framework to support future teachers in gaining professional knowledge during their studies.

Students who want to become teachers have to take courses in content and pedagogical content knowledge. These courses vary from university to university. The IPN has investigated the influence of different study conditions on prospective teachers’ knowledge in a large-scale project on. The results are presented here for the subject of physics.

"Forget everything you’ve learned at university." Many prospective teachers have probably heard this sentence during internships or at the beginning of their in-service training. For many years, university teacher training has had the reputation of being far removed from actual practice and insufficiently preparing prospective teachers for everyday life in school. This is supported by field reports and surveys, such as the 2012 study "Lehre(r) in Zeiten der Bildungspanik" (Teaching in times of panic about education) conducted by the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach (Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research), in which half of all teachers surveyed stated that their teacher training program had inadequately prepared them for teaching in the classroom.

Teachers’ professional knowledge

Research on science teaching should therefore also address the question to what extent current teacher training is sustainable and adequate. This is particularly important since research in recent decades has impressively demonstrated that teachers’ knowledge plays a key role in students’ learning at school. Teachers' professional knowledge is one of the key factors influencing the quality of teaching and students' learning. Professional knowledge is subdivided into content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. Content knowledge and pedagogical content form the core of professional knowledge for subject-specific teaching and learning situations.

The development of these two categories of professional knowledge in courses of teacher training was investigated in the project Kompetenzentwicklung in mathematischen und naturwissenschaftlichen Lehramtsstudiengänge (KeiLa for short) which focused on the question of the importance of institutional factors such as the teacher training program for the acquisition of professional knowledge. First, however, we take a look on how physics teacher training is structured in Germany.

The structure of university teacher training programs in Germany

There is not just one teacher training program in Germany. Various university and teacher training reforms, federalism and - last but not least - the autonomy of the universities have led to different teacher training programs over the past twenty years. Degrees such as the Staatsexamen stand alongside the Bachelor-Master system, teacher training colleges compete with universities, and the various types of teaching degrees (i.e., teaching in middle school vs. teaching in high school), are not standardized across the Länder. Looking at the various teacher training programs in Germany, it can be called a colorful patchwork. Therefore, it can be assumed that the professional knowledge of prospective physics teachers is influenced by these different instructional. Therefore, the structure of the physics teacher training program needs to be systematically analyzed.

Analyses of 25 curricula of twenty German teacher training programs showed that within the first three years of study (i.e., in the bachelor's program), five times as many semester hours are spent on the content courses as on pedagogical content courses. The topics of the content courses are canonical and shows a typical course of study. In contrast, the pedagogical content courses in the first three years of study are much less canonical, and the topic areas specified in the standards for teacher education are only inadequately addressed. For example, the topic area of motivation and interest is not explicitly addressed in 24 of the 25 curricula - even though this topic is listed as mandatory in the standards for teacher training. For the most part, pedagogical content courses are overview-like introductory courses that could not be assigned to a specific topic area. Thus, it remains unclear which pedagogical content knowledge is developed by prospective physics teachers during the first three years of their teacher training.

The development of pedagogical content knowledge

A helpful tool to describe this development of the pedagogical content knowledge is proficiency level models. Proficiency level models allow a description of knowledge on the basis of numerical test results. Based on data of N = 427 prospective physics teachers, we developed such a proficiency level. The results show that the pure reproduction of pedagogical content characterizes rather low levels, whereas reflective skills increasingly describe knowledge of high levels. Thus, the question arises how the teacher training program can support prospective physics teachers in attaining high levels of pedagogical content knowledge. School internships are of particular importance in this context, as prospective teachers can use teaching experience to further develop and reflect their pedagogical content knowledge. Our data showed that school internships completed as part of the teacher training program actually have a positive influence on the knowledge level. However, the strongest determinant for a high-level pedagogical content knowledge was prospective teachers’ content knowledge. Interestingly, the strength of this influence decreased as the level increased: Lower levels rely more heavily on content knowledge than higher levels. Nevertheless, these results illustrate that content knowledge and thus also the corresponding content knowledge courses in the teacher training program play a fundamental role in the development of pedagogical content knowledge.

Promoting content knowledge with cognitive support

These findings lead to interest in identifying factors that can support future physics teachers in developing content knowledge during teaching training programs - especially since physics is perceived as a highly formalized, hierarchical, and challenging field of study. Data of N = 107 prospective physics teachers suggest that especially the cognitive support provided by university lecturers in content knowledge courses play a major role for the development of content knowledge. Cognitive support can be obtained, for example, via feedback on individual learning progress as well as via clarity of learning objectives or explicit structuring of content.


Ensuring that prospective physics teachers develop professional knowledge is a major challenge for university teacher education. Apart from the actual structure of the university programs, teaching experiences through school internships can contribute a great deal to the professionalization of future teachers. This contribution is even greater if the teacher training programs offer cognitive support in their courses. University teacher training can thereby optimize the development teachers’ professional knowledge and prepare future physics teachers for their future everyday work, thus laying the foundation for successful teaching - today and in the future.

Dr. Dustin Schiering

studied mathematics and physics (teacher education program) at Kiel University. He was a research scientist in the Department of Physics Education at the IPN Kiel until summer 2022, where he also received his PhD in Physics Education. Currently, he is doing his in-service training at a secondary school. In this article, he presents parts of his dissertation, which focused on the impact of university physics teacher training.

Further reading

Schiering, D., Sorge, S., Tröbst, S. & Neumann, K. (2023). Course quality in higher education teacher training: What matters for pre-service physics teachers’ content knowledge development? Studies in Educational Evaluation, 1–9.

Schiering, D., Sorge, S., Keller, M. M. & Neumann, K. (2022). A Proficiency Model for Pre‐Service Physics Teachers' Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK). What Constitutes High‐Level PCK?. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 1–28.

Schiering, D., Sorge, S. & Neumann, K. (2021). Hilft viel viel? Der Einfluss von Studienstrukturen auf das Professionswissen angehender Physiklehrkräfte. Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft, 24(3), 545–570.

Schiering, D., Sorge, S. & Neumann, K. (2021). Promoting Progression in Higher Education Teacher Training. How Does Cognitive Support Enhance Student Physics Teachers’ Content Knowledge Development? Studies in Higher Education, 46(10), 2022–2034.