“Just tell me what you learned…”

It’s Saturday night at the end of spring break, my wife is nine days into an eleven-day trip out-of-state, most of my friends are out of town too, and I’m feeling moody and philosophical. So what do I do? Try to figure out what’s wrong with the way we (all) teach physics, and imagine better ways to do it.

So here’s a completely crazy, hare-brained idea. Every day, I go into class and just kind of weave a web of ideas, following them wherever they lead. Sometimes students will ask about whatever aspect of the physical world has caught their attention. Sometimes we’ll analyze something out of the news, or the physics behind a bit of technology. Sometimes I’ll toss out a puzzle to figure out, or a thorny real-world situation for them to try making sense of. We’ll pull in some math, some problem-solving strategies, and of course all kinds of physics concepts and principles as we go. The overarching, underlying, and through-running theme is “We live in a really interesting world, and we encounter some pretty powerful ideas when we think about it carefully.”

I encourage students to do reading on their own, sometimes choosing from various bits and resources I’ve marshaled, sometimes following their own curiosity. Problems and scenarios that come up in class get followed up outside class, and students report back another day to discuss what they figured out or where they got stuck.

There’s no specific, must-cover list of topics (though of course I can pretty much guarantee that the “big ideas” will come up again and again).

And what about grading? Throughout the course, students keep a journal or assemble a portfolio of what they’re learning. At the end, they write a reflective essay summarizing and weaving together what they think they’ve learned during the course, backing up with the journal/portfolio. That’s the basis of the grade. Maybe they even suggest the grade they feel they’ve earned, along with self-critique and suggestions to themselves for future learning.

We don’t have to think or talk about the friggin’ grades all semester. Students don’t have to worry about learning what they need to learn for the test, rather than what they want to learn or think would be most valuable for wherever they’re headed in life. I don’t have to worry about whether we’ll get through the syllabus: no “death march through the textbook.”

It couldn’t possibly work, right?

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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