New approaches to learning physics

by Stephanie Chasteen on November 3, 2008

Here is a nice video about how MIT has transformed their undergraduate physics classes using group work. This has been a very successful approach, though not without its critics. You can see my previous post on
Twisting the Ivory Tower to see more about reforms in undergraduate courses, including this SCALE-UP approach. I have another post on how it can be challenging for professors to give up center stage in the classroom.

Watch the video here


bob November 3, 2008 at 8:35 pm

I’m a high school physics teacher (17 years) watching a friend take physics for the first time at the local state college using this Mastering Physics program. I can’t speak for the way the class works (he likes it better now that the professor actually does *some* lecturing rather than relying entirely on discovery learning) but the program has to be the worst possible way to do physics homework I’ve ever seen devised.

You can’t read the entire problem. That’s the first thing you need to do to figure out where they’re trying to go. I’ve had trouble figuring out what they wanted for part a) until after I’ve read part b) for some of these questions. You can’t skip a part and come back to it later.

It’s entirely unforgiving. Mistype a special character and you lose points. Wrong number of sig figs and you lose points. Solve in the wrong units and convert you get the wrong answer (1000 mph = 1700 kph according to them). Misunderstand what they mean by their question (and some of their questions are horribly written) and you lose points.

Horrible immediate negative feedback. Type in what you think is the answer, click the button and wait for the cringe-inducing “incorrect” box. Down goes the grade and up goes the frustration level. For a six hour homework set the end result is frustration and apathy. Not the way to make students enjoy problem solving.

It encourages group cheating instead of group problem solving. Lots of multiple choice answers. Get a group of 6 friends and play the lottery. The lucky student gets an A, the rest get a B. Much less frustrating that struggling for a C.

The end result? Students who have taken physics before are passing, most of the ones who haven’t are failing. Sounds kind of familiar.

sciencegeekgirl November 10, 2008 at 11:50 pm

It’s so interesting to hear people’s field experiences with these new teaching technologies.

For one, most research suggests that entire “discovery learning” doesn’t work well. The teacher needs to be a guide for students, it can’t be completely free-form. We *don’t* already know everything, we do need a teacher to help us make sense of the world. (See my posts on A Time for Telling by Schwartz to see when lecture seems to be most useful). So, I’m glad that your friend’s professor is no longer relying purely on “discovery” learning.

As for the homework — my goodness, that just sounds like very poorly executed technology. I haven’t heard such poor reviews on the web assigned homework. Do you know what system he is using (so I can avoid it like the plague)?

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