Education is an experiment too

Image: Shutterstock/Matej Kastelic
Image: Shutterstock/Matej Kastelic

Universities are under growing pressure to increase production – more students finishing ever faster. At the same time, faculty members generally want to improve their programme’s quality.

At first blush, this seems an impossible contradiction. How can we simultaneously improve quality and, as it is often expressed in the halls of physics departments, let more students pass?

Part of the answer to this conundrum lies in the results of physics education research (PER). Here, physicists try to understand how people learn physics. What sorts of misconceptions do students have when entering the classroom? How can these be addressed? Are there some instructional strategies that are better than others? How can we help students learn a topic more effectively? Having now been reasonably well indoctrinated in PER, I will refrain from just giving you the answers and invite you to investigate on your own. After all, knowledge we actively construct is more likely to stick than received wisdom.

I’ve found that the greatest lesson to learn from PER is that one should approach teaching and learning juat as one approaches any other experiment. One should try different approaches to the problem, and try to dispassionately document the results. For example, rather than taking the traditional view of “I learned by X, so X is the most effective way of teaching my students” (where, typically, X=lecture), one can ask the question “are my Y effective?” (where Y could be lectures, labs, homework or any other activity).

This is where being a physicist is extremely useful. We are, after all, excellent at designing experiments and evaluating them with absolute, unrelenting objectivity. In this wonderful new world, bad evaluations are no longer slings and arrows to be suffered. Instead, they become helpful data.

As one moves from teaching to the students toward involving them in the intellectual pursuit of learning, life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Challenges will arise. One needs to be very open with the students about what one is doing and why it is being done – an occasionally difficult process, given that traditional instructional strategies, such as recipe-based laboratory exercises, rarely require effort to get buyin from students (or from department heads, for that matter).

Often, new teaching methods are judged more harshly than those to which all are accustomed. Simply put, the definition of success is often more stringent and perfection, rather than improvement, is expected. While this can be frustrating, it really just means we need to define what we are about: making things better for our students and, at the same time, ourselves.

When discussing PER, I often meet the statement, usually disguised as a question: “This isn’t really physics, now, is it?” This seems a strikingly odd thing. PER – or perhaps we should call it educational physics – is concerned with making all of us better and more effective at explaining to others the joy and wonder we find in physics, and helping them fashion the tools to experience this wonder themselves. Why would we not embrace them and learn all that we can from them?

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Ian Bearden

Ian Bearden

Ian is associate professor of experimental particle physics at the Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen
Ian Bearden

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