Science of Learning · Teaching Methods

Introducing Physics Students to PER

Physics Education Researchers know that active learning is better for students than lectures. At the same time, anyone who has attempted active learning environment knows that students do not always believe this to be true. The same holds true for study methods and habits. Instead students will balk and complain that “my teacher doesn’t teach”. Most recently a student told me they believed that by asking them to actively learn and collaborate, “the burden of the teacher has been placed on me”. I believe it was at this point I was ready to post Rhett Allain’s Telling you the Answer isn’t the Answer on every tangible and virtual learning environment I occupy. I didn’t do that.

At the end of Chapter 6 of The Science of Learning Physics, Mestre and Docktor share that students should learn about the research surrounding effective studying. I would argue that the same should be true about the active learning environment. In the past I have mentioned this casually to students, however the challenges of COVID required me to shift casual mentions to intentional direction.

Brian Frank shared that Jennifer Docktor had a webinar on the book. Excited and curious I watched the video. I was most excited that it was only 30 minutes, meaning it would be digestible for my students. The talk is an overview of the highlights of each chapter of the book. If you haven’t already ordered it and are interested, this is a great entry point!

Shortly thereafter I assigned the video in google classroom and provided the following:

  • As you prepare for finals and reset for semester two, I’d like you to listen to this talk by Dr. Jennifer Docktor.
    She is a professor of physics at UW Lacrosse and recently co-authored a book about how students learn physics.
    Watch the talk and write a short reflection. Include the following. Remember, you should be digging deep and synthesizing, rather than simply agreeing or disagreeing.
    • What resonated with you?
    • What ideas challenged your current thinking about how we learn and learn best?
    • What do you now wonder after listening to this talk?
    • What resulted in an “aha” moment for you.
  • Lastly, as a student, what can YOU take away that you’ve learned in order to improve your learning next semester?

I will be completely honest. I have a few students who have been extremely verbal about their hatred for active learning. I read their reflections last. I was also nervous because as a teacher, I’m a life-long learner. There are components that Docktor discusses and shares that I haven’t yet implemented or perfected, especially thanks to the COVID monkey wrench. Would students call me out? However, I was really impressed by what the students had to say.

Some students reflected on recognizing the intentionality put into our classes:

“I like our weekly practice tests, but I didn’t know they had an educational backing. When she started talking about interleaved practice, I thought about the momentum problems with a twist and some other homework problems that we’ve had.”

I had several students comment about applicability and connections to education outside of physics

“I now wonder, after listening to this talk, if other fields of science education, and other education in general, put this much effort into how material is taught to students, or if I have just never been aware of how I am being taught in the past.”

Another student actually posed that physics exposure happen at the elementary level so that kids have a better scaffold of experiences, rather than needing to uproot firmly held misconceptions in high school. (Big YES to that!)

What I really enjoyed, however, was students seeing themselves in the studies. Many students admitted to equation-hunting rather than starting with the big picture. I found this particular statement to be really fascinating about why they default to equation-hunting,

“I do this myself sometimes the reason why I do this is when I don’t feel confident in the work or I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Students overwhelmingly reported that an idea that resonated with them was how they are not blank slates, and experiences shape misconceptions. They saw themselves in the research and were shocked (and in some cases bothered) to hear that lecture and note-taking are ineffective, along with many of their tried and true, but passive study habits. One student who has been particularly insistent shared “the studies she talks about seem to prove me wrong about the lecturing method being more effective”

After completing this excersise here are my lingering questions:

  1. Given the demands of AP 1, how can we encourage students that they are growing and learning by leaps and bounds, even if they aren’t at a 4 or 5-level for AP yet? I feel this is easy for me in my non-AP courses because I set the bar, and so I can raise the bar as the year progresses, without students realizing this has occurred.
  2. Many students shared the sentiment of “well everyone is different, and this doesn’t apply to me” neglecting that this is a large body of work and research spanning decades and involving thousands of students. I’m wondering if more work in the realm of cognitive science and how we learn would be beneficial. But how to weave this into the structure of my courses?

I’d love to hear your insights!

Science of Learning

Drill and Kill? Or Drill for Skill?

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

A few weeks ago Frank Noschese posted this question on twitter

Some of you may recognize the diagrams as coming from physicsclassroom.com curriculum, which, I will admit upfront I have a big bias towards because the site is developed and maintained by one of my favorite teachers at the high school I attended. As a students I felt the website really bolstered by comprehension of physics and I continue to refer students and teachers to it.

However, if you’ve been following my posts, particularly this one, you will have read about the importance of creating “desirable difficulties” through spacing and interleaving problem types and topics. There are also some great methods out there to help students scaffold their problem-solving process to get them to take advantage of the metacognitive process so they can begin to think more like experts in their approach.

As such, this type of practice looks like the antithesis of good learning! The problems are fill in the blanks! Every problem is the same! Do any of these problems even have real meaning to the student?

So back to the question, what role do these types of problems serve?

Chapter 5 of Daniel Willingham’s Book, Why Don’t Students Like School is dedicated to the value of drill work. Drill work has gotten a bad name in the age of NGSS and common core as we push for deeper thinking and learning. However, when we practice skills repeatedly so they can become habit or second-nature, that frees up space in our working memory to focus on more difficult tasks that require deeper thinking.

We discussed earlier that the very reason novices struggle with seeing the bigger picture and conversing with themselves while they solve a problem is simply because no part of that problem is second-nature, it is all coming from working memory. A beautiful example Willingham uses is tying your shoes. Do you remember when you first learned how to do this fine-motor task? Now you can likely tie your shoes without stopping your conversation, and maybe don’t even remember you did it! Another example is driving a car. Did you ever find yourself at your destination, not quite sure how you arrived because your mind was so preoccupied with literally everything else except driving?

Your working memory has a finite limit and there’s not much you can do about it. However, when we commit processes such that they are automated, we free up some RAM, so to speak. This is where the above practice is, in fact, an excellent tool. When we drill students, we allow certain processes to automate so that they can focus on more complex ones. Consider what kinds of processes are automatic for yourself when solving these problems. You probably don’t think much about the mass-gravitational force calculation and that normal will be equal in all of these cases and you likely know immediately the direction of acceleration. Each of these would be good for a student to also have automated.

At the same time, these exercises can not be the sole mode of practice and instruction. This type of drill work should be reserved only when we are hoping to embed skills in our students in which automation will help them with more challenging tasks. However, when this type of practice is paired with retrieval, interleaving and spaced practice, it can be a powerful way for students to begin to recognize underlying structures of the problems which will provide them a solid foundation upon which to build their learning.

By the way! Drilling doesn’t have to look like a worksheet of identical problems! Check out Kelly Oshea’s Whiteboard Speed dating! It’s a phenomenal activity for several reasons, but at it’s core it’s making students do the same problem repeatedly, but in a fun way.

Questions for Consideration

  1. What skills deserve drilling in each topic?
  2. What skills have you drilled that should get shifted to “desirable difficulty” exercises?

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.

Science of Learning · Teaching Methods

The Science of Learning Physics: Metacognition Strategies

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

Metacognition.

I distinctively remember this being a topic in one of my teacher prep classes. I also remember several failed attempts at weaving metacognition into my assignments. I don’t know about you, but trying to get students “thinking about their own thinking” seems really challenging, clunky and too often inauthentic. Students are fantastic at sniffing out inauthenticity, and the moment they recognize something as garbage, they approach it in full B.S. mode.

The challenge with this, of course, is that metacognition is an incredibly powerful tool within the cognitive science toolkit, and is one of the marked differences between expert vs novice thinking.

Metacognition allows students to evaluate their learning and problem solving approach, and focus for studying. Unfortunately, students frequently misjudge their skills and abilities, often confusing familiarity with content for competence. Furthermore, students who struggle may lack enough familiarity to properly identify the edge of their learning. So how do we teach students to be authentic reflective learners?

One of Mestre’s suggestions in The Science of Learning Physics is to provide students objective measures to judge their learning. Specifically, access to old exams and questions. While this is an excellent method, many high school and AP teachers may lack a deep pool of questions to make available to students. Additionally, this is limited to student studying outside of the classroom. What Dr. Agarwal suggests in her book Powerful Teaching is “engagement with feedback” in other words, whenever we have students working in our classroom, they should have the opportunity to receive meaningful feedback on their work in short order so they can reflect on their process while it is fresh, and course-correct as needed. How often do we ask a student to tell us their thought process and they respond, “I don’t even know anymore”

A method I’ve adapted to aid in this task weaves together retrieval practices with metacognition. Recall in the retrieval process students first write. down everything they can remember using only their brain. Then, if you so desire, students can pair and share (I typically do a pair and then have pairs get together into groups of four). Last, you permit students to dive into their notes. In each of these progressive phases, students should be adding the parts they received from. other sources to their papers. Adding the metacognitive level is as simple as a highlighter. Perhaps students highlight everything from their partner in yellow. Then, they highlight everything they added from their notes in green. This produces a very clear visual of what they know and what they do not know. It also produces a visual of how much they can reap from their friends and what topics or ideas were “really hard” for everyone because no one could remember it.

If. you’ve started to dig into retrieval ideas on twitter or on Dr. Agarwal’s. book or website, you’ve. seen that there are so many different ways to do retrieval, from lists to graphic organizers. Any and. all of these can utilize this highlighting method. Not only does this allow for metacognition. and accurate judgement of learning, over. time it demonstrates to students how much they have learned over a time-frame and how their own retrieval improves with practice.

Here is another brilliant idea by Jess Kirby. Not only does this incorporate metacognition and judgement of learning, it also requires students to organize the questions by the big idea (another “expert-level” concept).

For a more complex version of this process as it relates to problem solving I have had students combine retrieval with cornell notes.

In this example I had lectured students on how to solve this exact problem the previous day. I provided them with the following notes sheet

First, I asked students to solve this problem as best they could using only their brain and what they could remember from the previous day. I only asked them to focus on the left hand side where they solved the problem.

Next, I allowed students to pull out their notes and add, edit or correct any of the steps they had missed. I asked them to color code these edits and then write out the steps in words on the right hand side.

Finally, I told students to look over their paper. Anything that needed an edit or addition (especially if “I just forgot that..”) needed to go down in the “reminders to yourself” box.

These three ideas really only scratch the surface of what is possible! If you have picked up Powerful Teaching, head over to chapter 5 for more great ideas and then share what you’ve implemented in your own classroom!

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.

Science of Learning

The Science of Learning Physics: Active Learning part 1 – The Power of a Story

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

Story-telling as a primary means for learning and passing on information is ancient. In his book Why Don’t Student’s Like School, Daniel Willingham suggests that lesson plans are carefully constructed to tell a story.

This may seem obvious, lessons have a beginning middle and end, and perhaps some sort of conflict that students wrestle with, however in order to truly engage in effective story-telling we must be even more intentional. Willingham suggests the structure of the four C’s: Causality (the connection between information), Conflict (what challenges the student’s thinking), Complications (additional conflicts that arise en route to the goal) and Character (the players in the story and their interactions). The benefits of using storytelling is that they are digestible, since they follow a common framework, interesting and easily remembered. When we frame our lessons as creating and telling a story, we offer the opportunity for our content to be better embedded into our students’ minds.

When implementing story-telling as a lesson plan structure, Willingham advises several considerations:

  • Consider what part of the lesson students are most likely to think about
  • Think carefully about your attention-grabber so that it not only inspires, but engages your students with the intended learning
  • Use discovery learning with care
  • Design the lesson so students must engage with developing meaning
  • Organize the lesson around conflict.

Eugenia Etkina’s Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) cycle of active learning (similar in some ways to the American Modeling Association curriculum) is one of the most powerful tools to turn physics units and lessons into stories. While that this is also a fundamental feature of the NGSS story-line model, as well as Problem-based Learning cycles. In this post I am explicitly using Etkina’s cycles due to their research-proved efficacy in the classroom.

Each of Etkina’s cycles begins with the “attention-grabber” which she calls the “need to know” Take for example, this Pepsi ad:

It’s fascinating to discuss that not only is this possible, but that it’s not even particularly incredulous: his speed at the top isn’t insanely fast. This video as an attention grabber is also particularly valuable because the entire premise of “can it be done” lies in the understanding of physics. Students can picture themselves trying to run the loop and can consider what that would feel like and what challenges might be presented. In contrast, doing a bunch of demos to “wow” students, such as whipping a penny around on a hanger, might be cool but are much more challenging for students to engage in the how and the way.

Etkina’s cycles rely on a fundamental and critical shift in how we approach the teaching and learning of physics. Specifically, that everything we do is framed in a similar context to how scientists work; everything is an experiment. (She recently published some research that highlights the cycles and I strongly suggest it for further reading). This relates to Willingham’s second point of designing discovery (we know it as inquiry) learning with care. As wonderful as inquiry is, it can be all too easy for students to head down inefficient paths if left entirely to their own devices. By framing the learning as a series of experiments with specific end-goals in mind, the teacher acts as facilitator to guide student learning down the path of interest without stifling their own creative thought.

Uniform circular motion comes at some point after forces where students have learned that a force is an interaction between objects and that when there are unbalanced forces, that results in a net force which causes an acceleration. The acceleration is in the same direction as the net force. Circular motion is often very challenging for students because so much of it is counterintuitive to students: enter the conflict. But rather than trying to explain to students (which is totally ineffective, see chapter 2 in Dr. Mestre’s book), students are engaged in a cycle of experiments to construct their understanding.

One of the first observational experiments that can be done is to ask students to get an object moving in a circle. I have seen this done in many ways, from giving students straws and a marble, to getting a students to come up with a broom and move a bowling ball in a circle. (Side-note: I overwhelmingly prefer the bowling ball example because it is much more obvious to the students what is happening) In this observational experiment students should notice two facts: first, that a force needs to constantly be applied, and second that the force is directed in towards the center of the circle. Similar, but different observational experiments allow students to confirm and refine their hypothesis (bucket of water, rollerblader holding a rope). As the cycle continues students eventual construct mathematical models and then begin to test and apply those models to a variety of situations. Here, we see Willingham’s final two points: making and discovering meaning is completely unavoidable through this model and conflict is central to the story as students continuously refine their understandings.

Students construct mathematical models from quantitative testing experiments through Pivot Ineractives

There is a great wealth to learn and discuss about active learning, but what I want to bring your attention to at this moment is how this structure creates a story. This story is not just some instructor-invented story, nor is it some obscure hypothetical problem that may be defined in a PBL lesson plan, but rather it is a story where the student is the main protagonist, and all learning and model development is directly related to the experiments performed in class and their outcomes.

Eugina Etkina is a physics professor at Rutgers and author of the book College Physics: Exploring and Apply. She has a facebook group for teachers to discuss the text as well as her cycles which all all shared to members in the group!

Questions for Consideration

  1. Pick a lesson that starts off “today we’re going to learn about ___” that is then followed by the definition or equation for ____. Can you identify the conflict for students? Can you think of something for a “need to know” attention-grabber that would get students thinking about the conflict before you dive into your lesson? Share it in the comments.
  2. What are your biggest fears or concerns with implementing active learning every single day in your classroom?
  3. Have you used an NGSS storyline or PBL cycle? Talk about the four C’s as they apply (or are missing) from that lesson. Discuss Willingham’s considerations for story-telling learning and how they are or are not addressed.

One of my first posts on this blog was about modeling vs intentional modeling. If you’re new to this idea, this post might resonate with you

Science of Learning · Teaching Methods

The Science of Learning Physics: Teaching Students Expert Thinking

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

One of my favorite discoveries in my cognitive science journey is the expert vs novice thinker conversation, particularly as it relates to physics. Daniel Willingham discusses this in his book Why Students Don’t Like School, “experts don’t think in terms of surface features, as novices do; they think in terms of functions, or deep structure.”  In Dr. Jose Mestre’s book he talks about an experiment where students were asked to sort physics problems. The experiment showed that novice students tend to sort problems by surface features  whereas the “experts” sorted the problems by the big idea, specifically the major physics concept used to approach the problem. 

Part of what makes physics, as a course, so difficult for all students is the necessity to move towards an expert type of thinking in  order to approach problems. It is an experiment I would love to run formally, but in my experience there is a marked difference between the first 2 weeks of physics and week 10. By week 10 it’s like a switch has flipped for all of the students and the impossible is suddenly possible. Of course, there is no magic switch, rather students have begun to adapt more “expert” ways of approaching problems. 

A really great example of exposing novice vs expert thinking is card sorts. Brian Frank has created an abundance of these sorts and they are amazing to work with. I particularly like the way Kelly O’Shea runs her kinematics exercise with students. First students are given just the graphs and asked to organize the cards in any meaningful way. Every time I do this assignment students decide to organize the graphs based on their shape OR they put all of the position graphs together, velocity graphs and so on. They make little to no connections between graphs (such as a parabolic position graph goes with a linear velocity graph etc). When students are satisfied the teacher realizes she forgot to pass out some cards” and drops label cards. These cards begin to get students to reorganize the cards in order to make the cross-connections. This also gives students a “second pass” with the material.

Ok, so it’s easy to see students acting like students, but how to we get them to think like physicists?

Strategies for Training Students

I love this puck problem below. The premise is beautifully simple. Same force, one puck has more mass, compare the change in momentum.

The novice student thinking looks like this:

  • Change in momentum is mΔv.
  • M is bigger on A, so A has the bigger momentum change.
  • FULL STOP. OR……
  • M is bigger on A and now I need to calculate v (lots of calculations later and fumble around with force).

The expert thinking looks like this:

  1. Impulse is equal to change in momentum.
  2. The force on both is the same.
  3. The mass on A is bigger, so it will take longer to get it to the finish line.
  4. Therefore Ft for A is bigger, so mΔv must be bigger.

Students are in shock by how simple and elegant the expert solution is. But it really just comes from ONE critical shift, pulling out the big idea rather than pointing to where change in momentum is explicitly stated.

AP provides another sweet opportunity to practice this skill and it is embedded in the paragraph-length response. Too often students see the format and just start to free-write. I discuss with them that they need to draft their response, much like a typical essay, but in a physics-friendly manner. They should (1) determine the big idea (2) set up the problem as if they were to solve it (3) Any step along the way becomes a sentence or bullet point towards the answer.

I work with students directly on this skill during classwork. I have a series of energy problems that I love to do this with. I have them whiteboard answers for speed and accuracy and I provide some very specific directions (1) Write your conservation statement (2) Write your proportionality statement (3) write your answer.

AP Physics 1 Multiple Choice: The Exemplar of Expert Thinking Processes

Every year I have a few AP students who are so close to an A but can’t seem to push over the edge. Additionally, I often have a handful of students who, if you were to talk to them, clearly have a solid grasp of the content but they absolutely tank the AP Physics 1 multiple choice items. The beauty…and poison of  AP Physics 1 multiple choice items is their requirement to think like an expert. The questions and responses are immensely loquacious and even though AP provides students with nearly two minutes per item students tend to fall into two traps: first, they are so used to multiple choice being factual items that you either know or don’t know and move and, and second, they try to be so careful that they lose sight of the forest for the trees. After the exam students frequently get mad that the questions were so “easy” or “obvious” “when you explain it” often placing the blame on me for not providing enough worked examples. Instead, we need to shift the narrative and turn the ownership back to the student. We cannot shame them, instead we need to train them on how to better approach any problem, not the 10 on Tuesday’s test.

I have found that having small group conversations with students about this to be highly effective. Willingham further describes in his chapter about novice vs expert thinking that experts have conversations with themselves which allows them to dissect the problem, focus on the important information and test ideas. Novices, on the other hand, rarely do this due to the cognitive load required of them. Having these conversations with my students helps train them in this type of procedure in order to make them more readily do the process on their own. 

We go through the multiple choice items together and I ask them a lot of questions. I ask them to identify the big idea, then I probe them to tell me about components of that big idea that relate to the problem. Only then do we begin to look at the answer options. When you probe about the big idea first, several options quickly show themselves as incorrect. A wonderful example are the multiple choice items that you might label “Newton’s third law”. As soon as a student sees the phrasing how does the force of A on B compare to the force of B on A, the rest of the problem should be irrelevant, whether there are numbers, masses and so on. So if I were working this problem with a student I would ask them to identify it as a force problem, then I would ask them what our class definition of forces is (an interaction between objects) and since a force is defined as such, we can cut through the distractors and identify the correct answer. 

Another strategy I use in my classes is I will literally hand them the exam a week prior to test day. However, I have made one very important adjustment: I take the question and all of the letter options off. Instead, students are presented with a scenario and they have the freedom to discuss with their peers the possibilities for the exam. I do this as an in-class activity, so students are not leaving the room with exam questions. Some students have reported back that this process makes them more anxious for the exam because they come up with exceedingly challenging possibilities, however in the end what it does is it allows students to perform on assessment day at the level they deserve. What happens here is, once again, students are engaged in conversations. They can transform these conversations into self-talk when they take the test. The idea that they have the actual exam in their hand means they know a 100% is possible if they talk to everyone, so they do not waste time working alone.

My tagline on this blog is “infecting students with passion” I definitely try to infiltrate their brains in several ways, and moving them towards expert thinking is one of them. As I tell them often, it’s my goal to get them to have conversations with me in their head when they sit an take the exam so it can feel as easy as a real-life conversation and they can knock it out of the park.

So tell me…

  1. What does expert vs novice thinking look like in your classroom?
  2. How have you tried to model or scaffold expert thinking and practices for your own students?
  3. What are you ready to commit to doing differently when we return in January?

Science of Learning

The Science of Learning Physics: Retrieval Practices

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

In light of my recent post regarding the learning and teaching of physics, which is much more than mathematical derivations, I’ve decided to dedicate a series of posts not only to what I’ve learned about teaching and learning, but also how I’ve applied those practices directly to my physics classroom. It’s time for some SciEDUComm 🙂

Often it can be easy to read a practice or idea that sounds good, in theory, but in practice seems difficult or inapplicable to the very specific setting of physics. 

One of the most powerful practices I’ve recently adopted is retrieval in my classroom

Pooja Agarwal explains it excellently in her book, Powerful Teaching. Retrieval leverages what cognitive scientists know about memory: that the more frequently we ask students to pull content out, the stronger the pathways become and the more easily they are able to accomplish this task when the summative assessment comes along. 

Later I will discuss how I use these practices together with metacognitive practices to truly bolster student learning. 

The process is rather simple: ask students to retrieve some amount of knowledge
“using only your brain” Pooja explains that this should be preceded by a no-risk, easy-entry warm-up such as “what is your least favorite flavor ice cream” or “would you rather be locked out of your car or your house” the warm-ups have answers that are only correct to the unique student, but not so easy that the answer is a knee-jerk response. 

Then, students are asked “using only your brain” to do one of the following:

  • Write down everything you can remember about __________ or from (yesterday, last week, last unit). 
  • Write down two things you can remember about
  • Write down one thing you can remember about (provide a list of topics)

There are, of course, many other iterations of this and the activity can be as short or as long as you’d like. I would like to discuss two uses of this activity. 

After the first day of reflection I asked students to write just two things. That was it! I collected the slips and we carried on.

On another day, while students were learning refraction, I did the same. However, I set up my room “speed-dating” style and as students moved through the room they added something new to the boards. Eventually the boards were exhausted and by the end of it we had nearly everything on the board that we knew about refraction. 

While this is a good lesson in the power of retrieval, I leveraged this moment to teach another important lesson: the 100% is always in the room. Students had, without my interference, discussed everything they knew about a topic. Too often I find students feeling that they need to do everything on their own, or they limit themselves to their friend circle. However, true collaboration takes advantage of everyone’s strengths. After we completed this activity we dove into the day’s “actual” activity that involved making observations of various refraction phenomena and then describing them.

It may seem at first glance that this process takes up additional time that cannot be sacrificed. However, as I quickly learned, the time spent actually pays off in several ways. First, students have a lot of critical conversations that would otherwise be 30 hand-raises and me going around answering the same question half a dozen times. Next, it put the learning process right in the hands of the students, and they see the pay-off. This leads to students working more efficiently and working more readily together. Thirdly, it makes it clear to students that no one has all of the answers, but together as a class they have everything. 

I also generally enjoy using retrieval as a launch-point for further application and practice of whatever we are doing. While Pooja will explain that just the process of going through retrieval is important, I particularly love using it as a way to build community and confidence before jumping into a new task. I presented on this topic within my school’s small learning communities. The presentation slides can be viewed here

But what about the pandemic?

I was really sad that at the completion of my first unit using retrieval practices, students reported the best test ever and then the state shut the schools down. I have continued to do retrieval in my classes by setting up enough break-out rooms for pairs and then moving students into larger groups. Like most activities online, the process is not as seamless as it is in the classroom, but it still gives students the opportunity to practice retrieval. 

Coming soon…how I used retrieval in my gifted AP class and interleaving.