Helping Students Learn (and Effectively Use) What They Already Know

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Paul Bruno, Physics (Home Department: Education)

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2009

Physics 10 is commonly known as “Physics for Future Presidents,” and Prof. Muller’s position is that future presidents need to know quite a lot of physics. It is therefore an ambitious class that covers an enormous range of topics. As I got to know my students, however, it became clear to me that while many of them were attracted by the scope of the class, they often were not confident in themselves as science learners. Many of them, it turned out, had had unpleasant experiences with previous science classes and had concluded — understandably, but incorrectly — that science was not “their thing.” Already largely convinced that they could not succeed, my students would often be quick to feel overwhelmed by the amount of content they were being presented with. I was sure, however, that even my least confident students were learning more physics than they were giving themselves credit for. If I could help them recognize what they had learned, and to see how that acquired knowledge empowered them to understand even more course material, I could develop both their understanding of physics and their positive self-efficacy as science learners.

I began adopting strategies in section to encourage students to think of themselves as knowledgeable and resourceful. To this end, one of the activities I implemented was a “jigsaw,” in which students would arrange first into “expert groups” to become expert in some well-defined portion of class content. They would then rearrange into entirely new “teaching groups,” in which a student from each expert group would proceed to teach her peers on the subject of her newfound expertise. The students therefore got a chance to see themselves as sufficiently knowledgeable to be of academic value to their classmates, and this seemed to boost their confidence in themselves as science learners. Another activity I’ve found to be especially successful in this regard is “concept mapping,” wherein students take a set of terms and concepts that I provide and “map” their understanding of the relationships between those terms on the room’s chalkboards in pairs or small groups. In doing so they make their thinking visible, and by making their thinking visible they can often surprise themselves with what they know. The end products are proof-positive that the students do, in fact, already have a rich understanding of much of the material, and they additionally provide an easy means of analyzing those understandings to strengthen connections among ideas, modify existing connections, and identify misconceptions. In this way the students can come to see what they already understand and how that understanding can be a resource for them.

The effect of these strategies on mid-semester surveys and official, end-of-semester evaluations from students has been striking. In the early stages of my time as a GSI, feedback about my sections was, frankly, tepid, with students often expressing that I and my sections were “fine” or “pretty good.” Now that I’ve implemented more of these strategies, students regularly describe the aforementioned activities as indispensable, express that they feel section really contributes to their understanding of course material, and describe our sections as among the most fun to attend of all of their classes. Their greater confidence and understanding is obvious to me as we interact on a weekly basis and as they challenge themselves, each other, and me with impressive, powerful questions about subtle physics concepts. Also notable is this: while in early semesters my section attendance rates often quietly dropped off to about 50% as the semester progressed, my rates now frequently top 65-70%, and absent students routinely request worksheets, guided notes, or other activities they may have missed. My students seem to appreciate the changes I’ve made, and I believe I’m helping them become stronger science learners.