coming soon: theory meets reality

This blog has been dormant for way too long.

Last January, I moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina, and started a new job as a Physics professor. Spring was largely transition, teaching one light course here and making several long trips back north to keep the research project there going. Then came the summer, with a greater-than-usual blitz of travel and urgent work.

This fall, I started here for real. Now I’m really teaching! (And quite a lot of work it is, too.)

I’ve taught before, sort of: lots of labs and discussion sections as a TA, an outdoor leadership program for high school students, short and long teacher professional development programs… but that’s not the same has having responsibility for a full-scale university “lecture” course with ~60 students and 3 contact hours per week.

This fall, I’ve been teaching Conceptual Physics, a general education course with 55-ish students, drawing from all four class years (most heavily from freshmen and seniors) and almost every major on campus except Physics. I have, of course, been using a classroom response system (CRS, a.k.a. “clickers”). I cannot imagine teaching a course even a third this size without it; it would be like teaching without a whiteboard or a data projector. It would like becoming deaf in the classroom.

It has been interesting to see how all the pedagogical theory that I and my colleagues have been developing has fared. It isn’t easy! I’m encountering many of the same difficulties that the high school teachers in our project have voiced — problems I’ve tried to help them resolve with all kinds of sage advice.

I am finding, of course, that it isn’t quite as easy as I’d thought. (I’m envisioning many of our teachers nodding with a small smile of vindication, and thinking “See?” Touché.) It’s not so much that I’ve been wrong, as that I’m seeing new dimensions and nuances to the problems and the solutions. In fact, having to go through many of the same CRS learning issues as my teachers is really quite instructional.

I’ll try to document some of those insights in forthcoming blog posts. One question that I’m wrestling with, however, is this: just how much should I “let it all hang out” in a public forum that my students might quite possibly discover?

Maybe I shouldn’t worry about that. I find that my faith in my basic pedagogical principles and outlook are being strengthened, not weakened, by the experience. If anything, I’m entertaining even more radical thoughts about how we can re-envision the educational enterprise. (That might scare some of you who know me well.)

Anyway, the next post will focus on my latest insight about what makes creating good CRS questions difficult, at least for me. Hint: It’s not actually about the questions, though it initially appears that way.

About Ian

Physics professor... science education researcher and evangelist... foodie and occasionally-ambitious cook... avid traveler... outdoorsy type (hiking, camping, whitewater kayaking, teaching wilderness survival skills to high school students, etc.)... amateur photographer... computer programmer and amateur web designer... and WAAY too busy!
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