Feist and frustration in science #aaptsm13

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 17, 2013

confused studentI’m having a great time at the AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) summer meeting, and I have had so many people mention helpful blog posts from previous conferences that I thought I should try to sharpen my blogging-pen and do a little live-blogging from the sessions.

An interesting talk just now from Jennifer Richards (U Maryland) and Luke Conlin (Stanford U), on “feist and frustration” and how this relates to student engagement.

They gave us two case studies.  One of a high school student who was frustrated in trying to understand how the tilt of the  Earth affected the length of the seasons.  He spent quite a bit of time trying to get an answer from the teacher, and then puzzling over the problem, until he finally arrived at a satisfying (and correct) answer.

Another example was of a group of students working on the Washington tutorials, and one student who struggled to make sense of the fact that a car and a truck in a collision must exert the same force on one another (by Newton’s Laws), but we know that the car will suffer more damage.  Her frustration sparked the group to have some very productive discussions as they attempted to address her annoyance and unhappiness.

The common features in these two situations are:

  • The content is non-trivial, with something to resolve and make sense of
  • There is adequate space, time, and resources to grapple with this content
  • The teacher supported the students in this process of grappling

So, the conclusions of these researchers are that feist and frustration CAN be productive for the doing of science (but that this is not always the case).

I found this interesting because I feel that this kind of frustration is what has often pushed me to work through a problem.  It can put that little fire under my feet to make me want to work on something, give me the urge and need to know.  So, maybe it’s not necessary to always try to soothe our students’ frustrations; if it seems to be putting a fire under their feet so they’re working to understand the problem, instead of just shutting them down, some frustration can be a really motivating factor.



Iain July 18, 2013 at 1:02 am

Great post.
Isn’t this the very cornerstone of science. Finding an unknown and then testing our observations to create a model and scientific theory.
The danger comes when students are more willing to assume the book/teacher/internet has the answer and that answer is “true”. Truth is for mathematicians, scientists have theories.

Peter (@polarisdotca) July 18, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Isn’t this also what makes a good peer instruction (clickers) question? I want students to be a bit frustrated; I want their brains hurting; I want them to want to resolve the issue. In return for their investment of thought, the instructor damn well better resolve things. Otherwise the students’ intellectual frustration becomes genuine frustration: “I still don’t get it! Why is he continuing with this lecture? Screw this, I’m just gonna click C) from now on and get my stupid point.”

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