Many university professors teaching physics unknowingly assume their students are just like them and can master the subject by watching an expert in action. Specifically, a functional understanding of physics involves the ability to interpret and transfer knowledge to situations different from those in which it was acquired. While this becomes second nature for experts, our students often cannot make these connections automatically, are intimidated, and conclude that physics is an impenetrable fortress of facts and formulas, only comprehensible to those who can find “the right one”.
All professors have encountered this situation. We design a test question that seems like a simple extension of an example solved brilliantly in class, just to be puzzled and frustrated when the students can’t solve it. All of us have had asked students an easy question after explaining the “hard part” to them in great detail, just to be met with deafening silence. As professors, we want our students to become proficient in scientific reasoning and draw connections between topics but students do not gain those skills by watching us define concepts, present models, discuss their application and solve example problems in class. North Carolina State University’s motto was “Think and Do”. I firmly believe students (not just their professors) need to actively engaged in scientific, reflective and critical thinking. We cannot do the thinking for them; instead, we need to motivate them, challenge them and design valuable instructional activities where students practice and receive feedback as they build these skills. We need to provide opportunities for them to reflect on their learning, collaboratively formulate questions that will then target those conceptual gaps. While students should feel supported, ultimately they need to be held responsible for their learning, which will help them develop skills that transcend studying physics. I believe in creating employable students who can succeed within and outside academia by incorporating opportunities to improve critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and written and oral communication.
My research and instructional experiences are related to the SCALE-UP (Student Centered Active Learning with Upside down Pedagogies) reform and it has shaped my approach to teaching. The studio classroom has round tables, whiteboards on the walls and no obvious front. The pedagogy minimizes lecture in favor of active and collaborative learning, even in large introductory, university classes. This interactive approach developed by Dr. Robert Beichner (my graduate advisor at North Carolina State University) has been shown to improve learning gains, conceptual understanding, attendance, long-term knowledge retention, favorable attitudes toward science and increased success rates for underrepresented populations. While I strongly believe the redesigned classroom greatly facilitates active learning, I can apply similar strategies even in a lecture environment with the aim of creating an engaged, interactive community where students feel comfortable asking questions, taking risks and helping each other.
In SCALE-UP and lecture settings, I expect students to preview the basic material before class so we can spend class time tackling tough concepts and solving problems together. I provide learning outcomes to guide students as they read and remind them of the most important ideas and skills when they review for tests. Prior to class, students answer “pre-flight” quizzes with two conceptual questions followed by one asking them to identify which topic they found most difficult or interesting. I modify the lesson based on their responses and include student quotes on the slides during class to clarify ambiguous statements, bring in real world connections and build rapport. By doing this, students feel their voice is heard and input is valued, even in large classes.
For example, when teaching relativity, I had a slide of the following quotes that students wrote on their pre-flight quizzes to demonstrate the “love-hate” relationship with relativity continues and to encourage them not to give up, since they aren’t alone.
- “Still loving relativity! I love how it seems to just tie everything together and make everything make sense. There’s a quote by Jill Tarter that seems to be apt for relativity – “The story of humans is the story of ideas, that shine light into dark corners“.
- “I am blown away by the equations! It is the coolest thing ever that they can describe things moving at such fast speeds as well as those at slow speeds. So cool!!”
- “I really enjoy relativity as the whole concept of different views on the same event is mind blowing! This really is SCI-FI come to life!”
- “Provided a sense of comfort is that it’s not a complete reformation of classical physics, just an add-on to mean it’s true for relativistic velocities as well. (So relativity doesn’t completely reform the brain in that sense).”
- “Thinking about things in the relativistic sense is very confusing. Yet at the same time it is also very fun, as we are challenged to think about things differently when compared to the norm. ”
- “It’s still all confusing…mind bending………..and brain hurting….. wondering if eventually this will be replaced by a nicer more intuitive paradigm”
- “I am continuing to find this entire topic very confusing and difficult. Not only are the ideas new to me but also they are complex and not visible in everyday life.”
- “Still struggling with relativity, I’m sure it’ll hit me eventually. Reading the textbook constantly to try and get some ideas!”
During lecture or a studio session, I use interactive polling questions in a Think-Pair-Share format. Students vote on challenging conceptual questions that often target known misconceptions. After voting independently, they discuss the questions with their peers, strengthening their own understanding as they explain it to others. Students get non-threatening feedback during every session and it allows me to continuously monitor their progress.
I aim to give students as much practice “doing physics” as possible, and provide fast, useful feedback. Technology makes this possible even in large classes. Students need repeated exposure to ideas in multiple contexts especially when it comes to common misconceptions identified by educational research. They need to be the ones engaged in the process of constructing and applying scientific models to predict and explain phenomena. Thus assessment should extend beyond textbook problems and traditional test questions. At UoA, I have introduced open-ended lab activities written up in an argument-based extended abstract format. Providing rubrics, samples of student work and peer assessment activities will guide students to improve their scientific writing.
Teaching should be a student-centered collaborative effort where learning extends beyond recall as students develop the ability to ask questions, think critically and work productively in teams. These higher-order thinking skills will benefit all students in their future pursuits. As a female in physics, I have always empathized with members of underrepresented groups. These educational best practices have been shown to improve everyone’s learning, while providing additional benefits to these populations. I also hope my innovative approaches will potentially create future educators, who can attract future generations to STEM and benefit society by ensuring citizens are scientifically literate.