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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Walking in a students' shoes--physics

It looks like I'll be playing a support teaching role to Pete in the physics courses that we'll be teaching in the winter.  Right now, these courses look like a range of courses on mechanics, and a "concepts of physics" course. Of course, this requires a great deal of review for me, especially in the mechanics area.

So, this summer, I am attempting to re-learn physics as if I were a student in SUSTAIN-using open education resources.  Here, I record some of my thoughts of this experience. First, I should point out that I have every advantage in (re-)learning physics:
I have not only taken these courses before, I've "earned" A's in them, giving me great (false) confidence that I am able to (re-)learn this topic on my own. Second, I have no time pressures and no performance pressures. There is nothing at stake if I don't learn this. Third, I am a native English speaker and a teacher myself.  I am familiar with the subtle (mis-)use of the language in writing "problems." Fourth, I have access to friends who know a great deal more about all this than I do (e.g., John Chen!).

Now, my experience...

First three chapters...big wins. I blazed through this material in a week, doing the Mastering Physics homework on-line and feeling confident of my progress.  (Newton's laws of motion).

Some bumps. I'm finding that my "copy" skills are poor.  I will neglect to write down a number in an equation, incorrectly transfer numbers from one line to the next. Embarrassing.  Small breakthrough: I get a notebook in which to do my physics problems. I organize the way in which I write things down, so I can go back and find where I strayed off the correct path.  Ah, this is where the anal retentiveness begins for is helpful!  I experience more success in completing the problems. My thinking is more organized.

Chapters 4 and 5...Applying Newton's laws.  Ooh.  Frustrating. I am seeing many of my profound misconceptions in this material! I get very frustrated when I can't get the "correct answer".  Tears. Anger.

Chapter 5...breakthrough.  I start to reflect on what I've learned after completing EACH problem. Before, I was going through the problems in kind of a video gaming, addictive format.  I was not stopping to ask what I learned.  I was only thinking about the number of points that I was earning by getting the problems "correct." (sad).

There is a way in which this "video gaming" strategy does not result in much learning. Now, in stepping back, I'm starting to see patterns and trends, starting to connect the resulting equations with equations in other domains that I know about.  I am starting to get a better conceptual sence of Newton's laws and their application.

Lesson: Reflection after each completing each "problem" closes the learning loop. 

I learn little from the videos on physics unless I write things down. I need to take notes so that I can incorporate this into my thinking.  Also, in the video, the equations go by and are gone when they are needed.  Note taking required.


  1. I have been reading about learning portfolios as well as contemplating the use of wikis for a project I have begun with Courtney Brogno in English. This experience and reading the post by Linda has made me think that not only should students reflect on what they are learning but also more broadly in how they are learning. In the "small" sense of one/few lessons there may be no difference between the what/how but more broadly (across most/all lessons) there probably is and students getting a better understanding AND appreciation of how they learn could/should lead to a better result via the broad feedback loop o learning. This is my hypothesis but I think it would be safe to say that the university hasn't systematically/institutionally appreciated this. In reflecting, this is a big part of what underlies SUSTAIN (at least in my mental model).

    In a separate post I will expand on some of these thoughts with the idea of fleshing them out in the context of what Liz, John and I might do in the low unit classes that Linda has asked us to take on in support of the core SUSTAIN classes. [Wow, this is all hard to write on an iPhone -- I will likely go blind before the second quarter of SUSTAIN is completed.]

  2. I like the idea of frequent reflection. I have been thinking about how to have the students WANT to do this. Just like you learned that learning is more complete when you do this, how can the students discover this? I think our model of these kind of assignments is that we tell the students to do something (like reflection) and expect they will see the value in it and thus adopt it voluntarily. Maybe this is just my model and you have already worked through this, but I really want them to discover what works for them, we think it is reflection (and research shows this does help), but how will they discover it?

    Thanks Linda for your transparency in this process. It helps so much.