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Shifting interpretations of physics

March 1, 2013

A student from my lecture class came to office hours today and shared something that made me very happy. This student didn’t do too well on the first exam so she was re-evaluating her approach to the class. She said that before the exam she did most of the homework by searching for equations and wasn’t thinking too much about the concepts and what they mean physically. As she prepares for our second exam, she’s now focusing more on conceptual ideas and trying not to jump straight into the math when she solves a problem. Yes! One of the TAs has been doing a great job working with this student and deserves much of the credit for her shift in approach.

I’m happy to see this student shifting her approach to our class but I was even more pleased by the next thing she said. When explaining how she was now trying to think about what’s happening physically she added “After all, that’s what makes this physics.” I LOVE that this student sees this not simply as a characteristic of our class but as a general characteristic of physics. I just sent an email to the TA thanking him for helping this student make this shift.

  1. I’m curious about how other physics teachers go about problems that aren’t formulaic, and force students to decide what type of problem it is.

  2. We do a lot of clicker questions in class that are primarily conceptual questions. For every clicker question I put an icon on the screen denoting whether or not solving the problem should involve doing math. We also encourage students to reason physically before doing a calculation to figure out whether they expect a positive or negative answer, whether they expect a large or small value.

    Two things that might help students adopt this perspective in my class: 1) Because it’s such a large class the exams are multiple choice and students can use their physical reasoning to rule out answer choices on the exam. This is a little more tangible of a benefit than being ‘more confident’ in your answer to a free response question. 2) My class is primarily pre-med students most of whom prefer a visual solution to a mathematical solution.

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