The aim of Fathoming Physics classes is for students to develop a genuine, robust understanding of physics – this is the approach most likely to produce the best academic outcome as well as the highest level of student enjoyment and motivation.
To achieve this I use teaching strategies and structures in my classes that have been demonstrated by physics education research and educational psychology research to be most effective at promoting student learning.
Classes are not lectures – I spend a minimum of class time telling students about new material.
Learning something is quite hard work – it requires real mental effort. Listening to someone tell you about a topic is actually pretty easy, as is reading over your notes or highlighting your textbook. Not only does it not require much mental effort, but it tends to produce the “illusion of competence” – where students genuinely believe they understand the material when they hear it, read it or see it, but they are not capable of recalling it under exam conditions or using it to solve problems.
The majority of time in lessons is dedicated to active learning activities.
Learning requires mental engagement and effort, but it doesn’t have to be boring or unpleasant to be effective – quite the opposite! Fathoming Physics lessons (almost) always involve problem solving that is embedded in practical activities. Wherever possible, the problems we solve are not simply “substitution” questions, but are centered on meaningful, real questions that can be answered by students using the physics introduced in the lesson. The practical experiences students obtain act as “memory anchors” that students can build their understanding onto and around, allowing them to leverage the physical experiences they have had in class to solve unfamiliar problems when they encounter them.
An example of this in practice: When studying our topic on Newtonian mechanics we determine experimentally, over the course of a number of lessons, whether students would be able to break a karate board with their fist, as we introduce the concepts of impulse, kinetic energy, work and conservation of momentum, and measure the energy to break a karate board and the speed of their fist with a high speed camera. These lessons, which are designed to make sense as a coherent sequence, give students confidence that the physics they are learning relates to the real world and is useful in solving real problems. These type of lessons take significant time to develop and refine, but students find them interesting and enjoyable.
I engage with students individually during class, so I can address their current level of understanding.
When I first began teaching, I believed that if I just told students what they needed to know, and gave them sufficient chance to practice, that would be enough for them to learn physics. However learning physics is complicated by the fact that it deals with how the physical world works – and students come into class with strong existing beliefs about how the world works, which can be quite resistant to change. When these beliefs are in conflict with the physics principles they are learning, it is essential to give students an opportunity to explicitly identify and examine their existing views, test them experimentally and come to the realisation that they do not adequately describe reality.
An example of this in practice: Many students entering year 11 can easily recite Newton’s 3rd law (that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”), but if you question students, most will firmly believe that, for example, when a small car hits a big truck going in the opposite direction at the same speed, the truck will exert a larger force on the car than the car exerts on the truck. While Newton’s 3rd law says the forces must be the same, it takes a number of experiments in class, where we take data using force probes to measure actual forces in real collisions for my students to begin to believe (and therefore be able to use correctly and confidently in problem solving) what they have long been able to recite.
Every lesson includes structured, systematic revision, which builds on and extends earlier work.
Why regular revision?
As learning new ideas is hard, it tends to happen very gradually. I always extend warm encouragement and an inexhaustible patience to my students in this process – long experience has taught me that everyone forgets what we did last lesson! The key though is that students have never quite completely forgotten what we learnt after just one week has passed, as long as we revise by working through problems which require students to use the material. In my experience, by far the most effective learning occurs during our revision time, as students really have to exert significant mental effort to remember and work with the ideas they were exposed to last lesson.
When do we revise?
Not only do we revise the work from last week in our revision quiz, but also the work from 5 lessons ago, 10 lessons ago and 20 lessons ago, the idea being to always catch students just before they have completely forgotten, testing them regularly, but at increasing intervals of time. This particular schedule of revision has been shown by educational psychology research to be the optimum schedule for learning material that needs to be remembered a year later.
How do we revise?
In physics, we are not just trying to remember material, but also to make sense of it. Again, the shift from merely remembering to actually understanding is a gradual process, but it is facilitated by not simply asking students to answer the same type of questions repetitively. Rather, over time students need to be given increasingly sophisticated questions, which require them to combine multiple aspects of the physics they have learnt, and so encourage them to piece together individual fragments of knowledge into a coherent, unified understanding. This process occurs at different rates for different students, and I always offer questions at a range of levels of sophistication in each revision session to cater for this.