How to make physicists and educate people

Image: Rikard Stadler

Last week, Alison Voice wrote here about her experience of founding the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Leeds. I want to follow that up by sharing some of my own experiences of physics education research (PER).

First, I would define physics education research as the systematic pursuit of knowledge and understanding of how people learn physics.

To me, it’s a form of applied physics research: it’s firmly grounded in the discipline, but draws from research in other fields – in this case, education. I could write about my own research into students’ adventures with kinematics, emf, Maxwell’s equations – but you can read about that in the literature.

Instead I’m going to write about what physics education research has to say about teaching in higher education – though much applies to other levels of education, too.

Sadly, discussing successful ways of teaching physics often draws the kind of response normally associated with discussing politics or religion. It’s not that it’s hard to agree what the ideal physics student looks like: they have factual and conceptual subject knowledge, solve problems, carry out independent research, ask relevant investigable questions, communicate clearly, and so on.

The trouble starts with talking about teaching students who are not Lisa Simpson. Suddenly the room polarises and two camps emerge. People with the temerity to suggest that the old ways have merit are uncaring troglodytes. People suggesting alternative ways are knit-your-own-yoghurt types who probably found physics very hard back when they studied it. Beliefs trump evidence, education research acquires scarequotes, cherrypicking of data reigns supreme, and communication turns into an exchange of insults. The only thing left to admire is the passion on both sides.

More dispassionately, PER has bad news for those on the extremes. For most students, a traditional model consisting of lectures, end-of-chapter problemsolving, and prescriptive labs that confirm the theory already covered in lectures overwhelmingly promotes the acquisition of factual knowledge and routine problemsolving skills at the expense of everything else.

Unless you’re OK with that, you need to consider alternative or complementary ways of teaching. On the opposite end, almost completely open-ended discovery has failed on several occasions. Unless you have reason to believe that you are like one of the truly exceptional teachers who have made it work, do not look there for solutions.

PER has good news for those willing to move across the wide spectrum that lies in between. There are many valid goals of physics education, many ways of being a good teacher, many successes that individual teachers achieve repeatedly, and many students who learn most effectively from talking.

Generally, we know that students who can solve problems with x’s and y’s in maths cannot automatically solve similar physics problems, and the ability to solve end-of-chapter problems does not imply conceptual understanding. There’s much detailed knowledge about where and when students struggle with a vast range of specific topics, especially at the intro level. You don’t need to be a researcher to use that knowledge to your advantage when teaching.

PER strongly suggests that no one size fits all students – or all teachers – and that different goals probably require different approaches. Teacher-led classes in which students get to discuss concepts may be best suited to students developing conceptual understanding, and need not undermine performance on end-of-chapter problems. More open-ended questions may help students with developing research skills, dealing with multiple ideas at once, and making sense of situations more complex than spherical cows in a vacuum.

If you hear yourself saying the words “the best way to teach is…”, make sure you stick in a qualifier. PER suggests that a single approach may well work to achieve a limited number of outcomes, but, if you want your students to develop all the attributes of the ideal student, you should probably use a variety of approaches.

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Paul van Kampen

Paul van Kampen

Paul is a senior lecturer in physics education at the Centre for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning and the School of Physical Sciences at Dublin City University.
Paul van Kampen

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