Overview of classes
The aim of Fathoming Physics classes is for students to develop a genuine, robust, conceptual 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.
Classes for Year 11 and HSC students
These classes cover the HSC physics syllabus and are taught at a level suitable for students concurrently studying extension 1 or extension 2 maths. New year 11 classes begin in term 4 and HSC classes begin in term 3 each year. This allows us to work a term ahead of school to provide ample time for students to consolidate their learning ahead of assessment tasks.
To give students a feel for the level of these classes – I have previously taught HSC physics for a number of years at a local selective school, and the level I teach these classes is slightly higher than the level at which I taught at school. The small size of my tuition classes allows me to talk to each student indivually during class to monitor students’ understanding and ensure that everyone is making sense of the physics as we progress through the course.
Starting tuition at the beginning of year 11 (module 1) is highly recommended. This provides sufficent time to revisit important concepts and skills several times during the course as part of our regular revision schedule. It allows me to help all students – including those who don’t find physics easy – to make sense of the physics in the course so that students can achieve their personal best result. This becomes more challenging the later students join the class.
Finally, the most critical factor that determines students’ final results is their level of commitment to the course. Students who get a band 6 in HSC physics are those who do the homework! I provide revision and homework each week, structured to make use of practice testing and interleaved, spaced repetition (please see the section at the bottom of this page for details on this).
Classes for younger gifted students
Many academically gifted students choose to begin tuition in years 9 or 10. They are often interested in sitting the Physics Olympiad exam in addition to achieving an outstanding result in HSC physics.
The year 11 class is my introductory level class, which assumes no previous knowledge of physics. It is suitable for younger students with a genuine interest in learning physics who also have a strong mathematical background (fluency in algebraic manipulation, quadratic equations, right-angled trigonometry and the ability to graph and interpret graphs of linear and quadratic functions).
Once students have completed year 11 (or an equivalent background) they are able to complete higher level classes (95+Olympiad and Advanced Physics Olympiad) if they wish.
Please note that the 95+Olympiad and Physics Olympiad (Advanced) courses are more intellectually demanding than the HSC physics course (which focuses on the precise skills and exam techniques relevant to the HSC physics exam).
Pathways through advanced classes
The table below outlines ways that younger students (or highly motivated year 11 students) can progress through classes at Fathoming Physics. Please contact me to discuss your individual situation and goals.
Characteristics of effective teaching and learning in physics
Effective learning (in general)
Substantial work has been done in the fields of cognitive science and educational psychology to establish which learning strategies are most effective across a wide range of subjects. There is strong evidence for the efficacy of two strategies in particular:
- Practice testing
- Spaced repetition
and moderate evidence for:
Please see the following review paper by Dunlovsky et al.: Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, and a 2022 Nature review paper by Carpenter et al.:The science of effective learning with spacing and retrieval practice.
An additional worthwhile paper is that by Roediger et al.: Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention
A summary of the some of the findings discussed in the above papers:
- Research tells us that taking a test not only measures a student’s current knowledge, but significantly enhances their performance on later tests more than the equivalent time spent studying, particularly when there was a substantial delay between the practice test and the final test.
- Spacing out study of content over time is more effective than studying for the same amount of time in more closely spaced study sessions.
- Interleaving (studying a range of topics in a single study session, rather than a single topic) ensures that students are retrieving information from their long term rather than short-term memory (each retrieval from long term memory improves later retrieval), as well as making choices about the required approach to each problem which realistically replicates the situation students face in exams.
The following article by Dunlovsky provides an accessible summary of effective learning strategies designed for a student audience: Strengthening the student toolbox
Fathoming Physics classes are designed around these effective strategies, incoporating practice testing, as well as spaced repetition of content and interleavingn of topics in our weekly revision.
Effective learning (in physics)
Research into effective strategies for teaching physics has been underway for more than 40 years (A review article by McDermott and Redish: RL- PER1: Resource Letter on Physics Education Research).
The main findings include:
- Students begin their study of physics with strong prior conceptions (often incorrect conceptions) about the physics underlying many physical phenomena. These ideas can be quite robust and resistant to change even in the face of repeated explicit correct instruction.
- Effective physics teaching must take these common prior beliefs into account via learning activities that actively elicit and address them, providing students with alternate approaches to understanding phenomena that students themselves find more believable and satisfying. We could summarise this as the need to convince rather than tell in order to produce meaningful learning in physics.
An example in practice: Students can often cite Newton’s 3rd law prior to beginning year 11 classes, but rarely genuinely believe it. If you ask students, most will feel sure that a fast moving, heavy truck will apply more force to a stationary light car during a collision than vice versa. A critical experiment we conduct in our Mod 2 lessons is to check, using sensor carts equipped with force probes, that the force a fast moving heavy cart with a hard bumper exerts on a light, stationary cart is identical to the force the light cart exerts back on the heavy cart. Students are generally very surprised at this outcome, and this acts as a memorable event that allows them to make correct future predictions about similar scenarios they encounter in assessments. Students are then able to explain the difference in effect of the collision in terms of the higher acceleration of the light cart due to its small mass, rather than being caused by larger force acting on it (as ΣF=ma).
A heavy sensor cart with a hard rubber bumper hits a light cart with a soft bumper. The force each exerts on the other is recorded and found to be the same (video).
Active learning strategies in physics
Active learning refers to teaching and learning strategies which emphasise student engagement and active intellectual participation in lessons. These have been demonstrated to be substantially more effective than passive learning strategies such as listening to a lecture. A review of the effectiveness of these strategies by Meltzer and Thornton: Resource Letter ALIP–1: Active-Learning Instruction in Physics identifies serveral characteristics of active learning, as described on the physics teaching site Physport (What makes research-based teaching methods in physics work?)
Effective approaches include:
- An emphasis on qualitative and conceptual reasoning, and students expressing their thinking during problem solving and socratic-style questioning.
- Students engaging in active problem-solving activities during class which utilise problems set in a variety contexts, representations of information (such as graphs, words, diagrams and equations), and frequently incorporating the use of real physical phenomena.
Activities in which students predict the outcome of demonstrations or experiments (commitment to an answer). This provides opportunities for students to check their beliefs and reasoning against real observations.
- Teaching students about effective learning practices (learning about learning – metacognition) and explicitly teaching the overall structure (connections) between topics as well as the content of each individual topic.
- Providing rapid feedback on students’ reasoning – from the teacher as well as discussion with peers.
An example of active learning in practice: Students often firmly believe that the reaction force to the weight force is the normal force. In one activity in module 2, students use a range of different representations (motion diagrams, vectors diagrams and graphs) to reason about how the normal force acting on a person must vary during a jump given their observation of the motion of a person jumping. We then take data in real time using a force plate and students compare this to their predicted graphs to make sense of their measurements.
In this activity we address:
- Student misconceptions about the reaction forces (as the normal force changes during a jump while the weight force remains constant, the normal force cannot be the reaction force to the weight force!)
- The “everyday” (rather than abstract) context ensures that students find the problem engaging and relevent to their understanding of the world they live in.
- Students receive rapid feeback on their predictions as we take real data in a few seconds in class so that students are genuinely convinced about the resolution to the problem.
- Finally – actually doing the experiment (and making errors!) is a very memorable experience. Every demonstration like this that we do in class acts as a memory anchor I can refer to regularly in future lessons as we think about new situations (“Remember jumping on a force plate? How does this question we are doing relate to what you learned about the normal force in that situation?)”