Getting in Touch with Your Inner Physicist

Tags: , , , , , ,

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Badr Albanna, Physics

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2005

When I began teaching Physics 7B this year, I knew immediately that I wanted to connect the nuts and bolts of Physics problem solving that the course was designed to impart with a wider view that included the fundamental questions addressed by advanced physics — the type of theoretical questions that had always drawn me to the field. In section I often explained how concepts we were learning in class related to profound contemporary problems. These lectures seemed to be successful in exciting the class (as evidenced by positive comments on unofficial mid-semester evaluations), but I often found that when it came time to use the basic skills learned in class and discussion to solve specific problems, many of my students immediately became distant. Some would simply glaze over; many would begin problems only to decide that they were somehow out of their skill range and wait patiently for us to review it as a class. Engaging the students one-on-one while they worked sometimes produced results; however, even if the students completed the problem, they often became accustomed to waiting for my gentle prodding before seriously beginning work. Had the more theoretical discussions made the whole field seem too imposing, too big? Although I considered removing the discussions from my notes entirely, I eventually decided that the deeper problem was that a number of my students didn’t feel any sense of ownership over the material. Many were taking the course to fulfill a prerequisite for another major and consequently adopted the attitude that they were simply visiting someone else’s world rather than exploring their own.

With this in mind, I decided to reverse the dynamic of our discussion sections. When it came time to work on problems, instead of my standing in front of the class begging the students to explain how they reasoned the first part of problem one to their classmates, they would become the teachers and I would adopt the role of a particularly knowledgeable assistant. In the past, the entire class had divided into groups and worked on the same problem under my supervision, whereas now each group would be given its own problem with the expectation that they would explain it to their classmates upon completion. Although the problems often covered similar ground in terms of the specific techniques used, the individuality of each problem made each group feel that if they did not complete it, no one else would. Not only would they suffer personally for not having worked on it, but the whole class would miss the experience of considering that particular physical situation. Immediately, the class dynamic changed. Groups dove into their own “research” with a palpable sense of enthusiasm. While the lively and engaged mood was certainly welcome, the real benefits manifested themselves when it was time to explain their problems to each other. During this time I would take a seat (often at the rear of the classroom) and observe as the students presented their work and questioned each other with little mediation from myself. Of course, I would jump in when the presenters did not know how to answer a question or hit a snag in their reasoning, but for the most part these sessions passed with little interruption.

The students soon became more confident in describing different physical situations and verbalizing their solutions. This confidence translated into a better understanding of the material and an inquisitiveness that had been heretofore lacking. As we continued with this classroom model, both the number and level of questions about the material increased. Ultimately, I knew we had achieved some success when I found students staying after a two hour long section to inquire even further about the day’s material or just to ask other physics-related questions that had come to mind.