Science of Learning · Teaching Methods

The Science of Learning Physics: Practice and Study Skills

In my previous post we discussed strategies for metacognition to help provide students a clear, objective judgement of learning in order to help students see their own improvement and laser-focus where they need to put in more time.

Today we are going to further explore practice and studying.

We have already discussed some of the following: that students tend to judge their own competence poorly, students mistake familiarity with competence, and student study habits, if existent, tend to rely on passive methods such as “looking over notes” and highlighting. This is part of the reason why active learning is so beneficial in the physics classroom; it creates a norm for how we approach any problem.

In the book The Science of Learning Physics, Mestre and Docktor discuss the work of cognitive scientists Elizabeth Bjork and Robert Bjork of UCLA that suggests the implementation of “desirable difficulties”. Implementing these desirable difficulties is providing students with a challenge that is just out of their comfort or familiarity zone, but not so far removed that the student shuts down. Desirable difficulties can be produced by creating certain experiences for students that, in a way, de-contextualize the problem. These methods include varying the condition of practice, spacing and interleaving.

Spaced practice is commonly known: we don’t really learn much by cramming, but students will cram nevertheless. Knowing this reality we, as teachers, can incorporate spaced practice into our classroom as part of our warm-ups and retrieval exercises or focused activities. We can also incorporate these practices in order to help students built their own study guides (particularly when combined with metacognitive strategies) I really enjoy embedding spacing as a retrieval practice like the one below. You’ll notice I give students a single word to help jog their memory just a little, because remembering from a week or two ago can be really hard!

This practice also works excellently with interleaved practice, which is when students are asked to use multiple ideas at once or in random succession (the opposite is blocked practice such as items 1-10 are newton’s laws and 11-12 are energy). Physics truly lends itself beautifully to this process because, in truth, working through a semester of physics is really working through new and layered understandings and models for how and why things happen.

Last year I had my students do a retrieval exercise to get them to retrieve everything they could remember about reflection and refraction. After cycling through pairs and groups of fours I asked them to create a Venn diagram of the two concepts. This got students actively thinking about how refraction and the problem-solving tools connected to reflection and lead to some phenomenal conversations. It also produced a desirable difficulty: students had not thought about refraction in this way before and they were asked to interleave with reflection. Students got to walk around and look at the other boards and then come back to their board to shift or add anything they felt needed to move.

Goall-less problems are a really great way to incorporate these practices. In a goal-less problem you take off the last part of the sentence that says “find the velocity” and so on. Instead, students are asked to write down and solve everything they can about the problem. The benefit to this method is that it is the epitome of a low floor, high-ceiling activity. Even your poorest performing student should be able to draw a picture or write at least one thing down. It also removes the narrow student focus of trying to solve for the specific thing asked for, and rather makes students consider all of the possibilities. In my on-track physics classes I typically put a list of all of the representations and options they have available up on the board the first few times we do this. Goall-less problems also make for fantastic final review or assessment items.

One final note that is more personal experience than anything else. I really, really hate Webassign and other similar online homework platforms. I worked as a full time tutor in a school for two years and I was typically inundated with physics students wanting to get all of the green checks. No matter my goal, hope or intent, the majority of students generally did not care until I got them through all of the steps. In contrast, the couple of students I tutored from small, private schools without an online platform were far more interested in process. There is something about the green check and the correct numerical answer that strips away all of the process and metacognition that we work so hard to cultivate in our classrooms. I’m not sure what the answer is to this (other than this type of homework being worth close to nothing). But I am sure that when the focus in class is truly about helping students create their own knowledge that much of this type of homework becomes obsolete. I would much rather have students working out solutions on paper that they can then bring to class and have a conversation. In Webassign success is binary: you get a red X or a green check, but comprehension and learning are not binary processes, they are fluid and messy. Students need to work through the mess and celebrate the small wins along the way.

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