Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite

by Stephanie Chasteen on November 11, 2009

If you’re a teacher — of physics, or any other physical science — and haven’t yet picked up a copy of Edward Redish’s Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite , I’m making a bid right now that you do so.

I finally read it — really read it — instead of just browsing through a chapter that I needed to reference for a paper.  For a slim volume, it is a surprisingly powerful compilation of effective teaching techniques based on research, and what you as an instructor need to do in order to implement them to their maximum power.

First he goes through a wonderfully succinct summary of what cognitive research can tell us about teaching — the book is worth buying just for these 30 clear pages.

He goes on to discuss exams and homework — the goals of assessment and different types of questions.  He has a resource CD with a bunch of research based surveys, like the Force Concept Inventory, or different attitude surveys.  He then gives a quick look at some of the major research-based teaching methods, like Peer Instruction (PI), Interactive Lecture Demonstrations (ILDs), Tutorials, and Just In Time Teaching (JiTT).  It’s certainly more useful for teachers of physics (at any level) but I think that most people teaching the physical sciences will come away with something useful from the book.

Here’s a gem.

I had been teaching for 20 years before I realized that when students asked me questions, I was responding as a student rather than as a teacher.  Having been a student for 20 years, having been rewarded for giving good answers to teachers’ questions, and having been successful at getting those rewards, I had a very strong tendency to try to give the best answer I could to any question posed.  Once I realized (embarassingly late in my teaching career) that the point was not getting the question answered correctly but getting the student to learn and understand, I shifted my strategy.

Now, insted of answering students’ questions directly, I try to diagnose their real problem.  What do they know that they can build an understanding on?  What are they confused or wrong about that is going to cause them trouble?  As a result, instead of answering a question right off, I ask some questions back.  Often, I discover that students are trying to hide a confusion by creating questions that sound as if they know what they are talking about.  Helping them to find resources within themselves that they can bring to bear often makes all the difference.

Redish, “Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite,” (2003), p. 190.

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