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Reflection: Physics, Intuition, and Graphs

January 29, 2013

Something I’m going to try to do in our LA meetings for Hands-on-Science this semester is to have people reflect on and share an interaction they had that week that they found significant/frustrating/successful/interesting. Here is my reflection from last week…

The Interaction (PET Ch. 1 Act. 2)
A group was working on a question asking them to identify on a speed vs. time graph the period of time during which a contact interaction between the cart and the person’s hand was taking place. One student explained her idea to which a second student seemed to agree. I asked a third student what she thought to which she responded (to her fellow student) “I don’t understand physics and graphs so I’ll just agree with you.” I explained that what we are thinking about is whether the hand is in contact with the cart the entire time the cart speeds up or whether the cart continues to speed up for a short period of time after it leaves the hand. The student thought about this for a moment and said that she thought the cart sped up only while in contact with the hand. I asked why she thought so and she said it just made sense. I said that it’s OK to answer a question based on an intuition or a gut feeling. She agreed but said the problem is that her intuition is usually wrong. I said that one of the things we work on in this class is refining our intuition. We don’t want to ignore our intuition but we do sometimes need to improve it so that it’s more accurate. I pointed out that the student now had a specific idea about how the cart behaves that she can compare with other people’s ideas and see if they agree. I then moved on to another group.

The Good
I think I did well explaining what the question was asking and succeeded in my attempt to make the question sound like something the student could use intuition on. I presented two alternative answers to the question in an attempt to make the question more concrete and physical and I’m guessing that this helped the student. I think this was the right first move to get the student to engage with the question.

I want students to use their intuition and to see their intuition as a guide and not an impediment. This is not necessarily the student’s opinion at the start so I think it’s good for me to express this idea explicitly. This is an effort to align students’ framing of the class, the subject of physics, and the process of learning physics with my framings.

Room for Improvement
It might have been good for me to stay a little bit longer and see if someone in the group could give a little bit of a physics explanation or even if no physics words were used at least some sort of verbal explanation for their answers. This would have allowed me to point out the intuitive reasoning the student was utilizing and point out that this reasoning is really productive and actually does correlate with some physics idea.

I wasn’t thinking about this in the moment, but I realize that I separated the question of ‘how does the world work’ from the question of ‘how do we express this idea on the graph’. I should have stayed (or returned) to see that the student can connect her idea to the question about the graph. I certainly left feeling like the student understood the question but without returning to the graph the student may have felt a disconnect between our conversation and the actual question in her book.

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