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Physics doesn’t have to be hard!

Posted 10:51 a.m. Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Teachers participate in a 2017 workshop at UW-La Crosse where they built robots and learned about new ways to incorporate STEM — or science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts — in their classrooms.

Five strategies every physics teacher should know

When you teach physics, you typically get one of three reactions. The least common, says Jennifer Docktor, UW-La Crosse associate professor of physics, is “Oh, I loved physics in high school!” More commonly, she’ll hear, “Oh, you must be really smart,” or “Physics is so hard.”  

But the study of physics doesn't need to be exceedingly difficult — left only to those with a rare physical scientific aptitude. If we teach physics with research-backed teaching and learning strategies, Docktor says we can overcome the challenges and improve student learning at both the high school and college levels.  

Docktor offers strategies teachers can use to help students excel in physics in her new book “The Science of Learning Physics: Cognitive Strategies for Improving Instruction,” with co-author, Jose P. Mestre, a professor emeritus at University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign. She also shared some of those strategies in a video as part of Harvard University’s Physics of Living Systems teacher initiative. Here are just a few strategies to try: 

Jennifer Docktor, UW-La Crosse associate professor of physics, is co-author of a new book, “The Science of Learning Physics: Cognitive Strategies for Improving Instruction.”

Tip 1: Unravel misconceptions.

A common challenge for physics teachers is that students don’t come to their classes with a blank slate — they have many ideas about how the world works based on their own observations and experiences. Teachers must uncover and address students’ misconceptions that are inconsistent with what scientists have learned. For instance, many believe, based on experience, that heavier objects fall faster. If you dropped a hammer and a feather, you’d find the hammer does indeed land on the ground first. But an experiment with the same two objects on the moon would show they fall at the same rate. Teachers can work to unravel the misconceptions about the physical world by asking students to share their prior knowledge as part of class, says Docktor. Many resources are available to instructors to understand ways to elicit this knowledge. Docktor has used multiple resources from Author Page Keeley, including the book series “Uncovering Student Ideas in Science.” She has then used hands-on experiments in the classroom to test if students’ prior knowledge holds true. For instance, Docktor has asked students to hold a variety of metals to a magnet to prove to themselves that “all metals stick to a magnet” is not a sound theory.  

Tip 2: Teach students to think like a physics pro — practice properly categorizing problems first 

Research shows that experienced physicists will often approach solving problems by laying important groundwork. They will evaluate the physics concepts and principles that apply to the problem first. As they work through the problem, they will then evaluate whether their approach is making sense. As an instructor, you can model and encourage students to use this successful approach too.  

  • Give students practice applying the right principle to the problem. You could do this by providing a problem statement accompanied by two others. Then, ask students which of the two problems would be solved most like the first.   
  • Help students consider why they chose the specific principle. Before starting a problem, ask students to write the principle they would apply, why they chose it, and their plan for solving it. Drawing a picture and writing the relevant equation before plugging numbers can also help.  
  • When modeling how to solve a problem in class, do the productive behaviors you would like to have students do when they solve problems. Show all your steps instead of taking a short cut. 
  • Physics education research has led to many instructional materials for teaching problem solving such as frameworks, rubrics and different types of problems. Explore tools available to teach problem solving. 

Tip 3: Use active learning techniques.

Active learning in physics means using teaching methods that go beyond lecturing to students while they take notes. Research shows that while students think they learn more from simply hearing the information, testing shows they retain more when they are engaged. In addition to hands-on lab activities, active learning could be any activity where students are cognitively engaged and thinking about what they are learning. For instance, asking students questions through classroom polling technology is an active learning strategy. The key for active learning is that students need to have the ability to share their ideas and reasoning with a small or large group.  

Tip 4: Understand your own expert blind spots.

When physics instructors become so familiar with physics principles and concepts, it is easy to forget what it was like to be a novice. They may skim through problem solving steps assuming students understand the details. But this could lead to more potential for confusion. Instead, instructors should guide students through the initial steps of understanding where to start. Encourage them to draw a picture and think about the concepts and principles involved.   

Tip 5: Teach students study strategies that work.

Many students believe that highlighting or underlining in their book or notes is an effective way to learn information. In this process, they become more familiar with the material and equate that with having learned the information. But highlighting and underlining is actually one of the least effective learning strategies for retaining information. Students will retain more if they try one of these strategies below.  

  • Practice testing – Testing is a proven way to promote long-term retention of the material. Give students opportunities to test themselves through low-stakes quizzes or practice tests. 
  • Distributed practice – Encourage students to space learning over a period of time vs. cramming for a test. Suggest they start studying a week in advance and budget time. 
  • Interleaved practice – Combine topics or ideas when you are practicing physics concepts, so students are challenged to identify the principle and concept that they would use vs. testing an entire chapter where only one principle is used to solve a problem. Use cumulative problem solving practice and exams that will challenge students to think more deeply about the concepts and principles involved. 
  • Elaborative interrogation and self explanation – When reading something in a textbook or in their notes, encourage students to ask, “why?” and “how does this connect to things I already know?” Have them explain it in their own words and think about it more deeply. 

More on “The Science of Learning Physics” 

Jennifer Docktor’s new book with co-author Jose P. Mestre is about teaching and learning of physics. It is intended for college-level instructors, but high school instructors might also find it very useful. Some ideas found in this book might be a small 'tweak' to existing practices; whereas, others require more substantial revisions to instruction. Learn more about the book.  

More on UW-La Crosse Physics

UW-La Crosse is No. 1 in awarding physics bachelor’s degrees across the country, according to the latest data from the American Physical Society. Read the full story.