Science of Learning · Teaching Methods

The Science of Learning Physics: Active Learning part 2 – Convincing the Student

This post is part of a series on the Science of Learning Physics

I’m going to make an assumption that most readers of my blog do not need any convincing of the benefits of an active learning environment. Even still, in the name of these posts starting from a solid research foundation I will briefly discuss the value. However, I think the bigger challenge teachers face is persisting with the active learning environment in spite of feedback from students, parents and perhaps even colleagues along the way.

The active learning model is a natural consequence of constructivist learning. Active learning has been shown to be more effective than traditional lecture, as well as most effective at uprooting and replacing common student preconceptions.

In an active learning environment the teacher takes the role as coach, facilitator and guide. Not leaving students to their own devices, but rather carefully crafting the learning experience so as to set students upon a fruitful path. Mestre lays out in his text that active learning could consist of the following:

  • Opportunities for students to share their ideas and reasoning individually or with their peers
  • Encouraging qualitative reasoning based on physics concepts
  • Encouraging construction and sense-making of physics knowledge; for example students are prompted to figure things out for themselves
  • Providing opportunities for students to engage in the process of “doing science”
  • Providing opportunities for students to apply their knowledge flexibly across multiple contexts (transfer to new contexts)
  • Helping students organize content knowledge according to some hierarchy
  • Teaching metacognitive strategies to students

For the first time this year, and thanks to an idea from a friend and college, Joe Milliano, I had this discussion of “where the learning happens” with my students at the start of the year, anticipating more push-back than usual due to the hybrid environment

Part of my intent in this was to point out how the “information getting” part of the class is really small compared to the student-centered and constructivism part of the class.

Mestre, likewise, encourages teachers to be completely upfront with students regarding the science of learning in order to provide them with the context for the journey we are about to embark on together. It’s important for students to know we’re not just doing this “to them” but rather we are doing this for them because it is truly the best model for their learning.

Unless your school or department is built on a Problem Based Learning model, or something comparable it is very likely that your students have not engaged in an active learning environment to this extent before, ever. Your students will likely cite that they learn best based on their learning style, they enjoy lectures and seeing examples and they study by going over their notes and re-reading the text. In fact, you can fully expect your students to think and feel like they are not learning, when they really truly are!

These common student responses are riddled with challenges for the teacher and their own learning. The best thing you can do as the instructor is to begin to have these conversations from the first day of school. Firstly, while learning preferences is certainly a thing, the truth is that difference courses require students to perform in different ways, and the way in which we ask them to perform may not match their learning style, this mismatch can then appear as incompetence if we teach to the learning style rather than the intended performance objective. Next, lectures, watching examples, going over notes and re-reading the text are all ways in which students can gain familiarity with content, but students confuse familiarity with competence. How often have you heard a student report “I get it when we do it in class, but then I forget everything on the test”.

Eugina Etkina has a wonderful, non-physics exercise to discuss the importance of students “doing the doing” as I call it. She calls it the expert game. You ask students to go around and share their “thing” that they are really interested in or really good at. Then, you group the students based on similar interests. Students are asked to come up with a flow-chart or visual on how you go from being a novice to an expert in that craft. Inevitably the results consists of things like “watch an expert” “practice” “get feedback”. This conversation then comes back around to the work in the physics class. I can watch Michael Phelps all day long, but I’m never going to be able to even swim unless I jump in the pool. Same goes for the work of physics!

Students begin to get on board with the idea of active learning when they see they are reaping the benefits. Unfortunately, physics tests do not always reflect this for our students. Enter the retake. I do retakes in a very special manner in my classroom. It’s something of an adjustment from an idea I read in an old Physics Teacher journal. I have not let students do this until the energy unit exam, only because I want students to get through that “adjustment period” I’ve mentioned previously.

Students complete the energy exam and I tell them the following day that they have a retake opportunity. Here is how it works.

I will be upfront with scoring. Students will take the exact same test over again. They must score 100% in order to get the bump.

Students do NOT get to see their original exam. They do not know their score, they do not know what they missed. This is really important.

I arrange a designated day and time in which students can come to my room to collaborate. They will receive a blank copy of the same exact test they originally took. They can use any print resource. They may not ask me questions.

One week after the collaboration students come in at a designated time to take the retake.

Scoring is easy because I’m looking for perfect papers. The bump works on a square root curve, so if the original score was a 64, the bump will be 10*sqrt(64) = 80. I really like this way of adjusting since the student who had a 96 to begin with only goes up to a 98, which makes sense since they had small errors, but the student who had a 64 and pulled of a 100 gets up to a respectable 80.

The design is where and how the magic happens. They know that 100 is possible because they are ALL together. The teamwork and camaraderie is palpable and the energy in the room is invigorating! Students also realize that they are all in this together: there’s no geniuses here, and working alone is not the best use of time. Because they need 100, students argue their point to the finish. Because they need 100 a week after they get to talk, students are making sure they fully understand how to answer the questions.

I was really nervous the first time I did this with my students, but I knew I did the right thing at the end of the first session when my top student walked out of the room and said, “I thought I knew what I was doing on that test, but there was a lot I needed to learn” This student had an 87 on the first round!

I have found that one of the most critical components of an effective active learning model is creating the classroom culture where students not only feel safe to take risks, but feel safe to work together with every single student in the room. This takes a great deal of time and effort on the part of the teacher to properly construct. (Head over to Kelly OShea’s blog to learn about board meetings and speed dating, two of my favorites for building classroom culture!) Our current situation with the pandemic has made it much worse and I’m not sure how I can roll out my most favorite teaching tool under all of the current constraints (if you have ideas, drop them in the comments!)

To that end, if you are a new or novice teacher, or are looking to begin using active learning in your classroom, I would strongly encourage you to seek out teachers who also use active-learning in their classrooms. Create your own Professional Learning Network (PLC) of incredible teachers from across the country, sign up for the workshops at AAPT, or an AMTA modeling workshop so you can not only network, but have a place to have conversations about what is working and not working. Just as I tell my students, we are better together.


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