Research & Experimentation

I’m a physics education researcher. That means I study anything under the very broad umbrella of “teaching, learning, knowing about, and doing physics.” I’m also a practicing physics instructor, which means this is not ivory tower research for me. My research informs my teaching, and my teaching keeps my research honest. My research style seems to be a combination of theoretical work (finding more productive ways to understand think about things) with classroom-based teaching experiments (following, as much as possible, the methodology of design-based research).

My research is driven by my conviction that I can get better at teaching physics. I don’t think any of us really knows quite what we’re doing yet when it comes to teaching physics; in many ways, it’s still more of an art than a science.

The more I do this, the more convinced I become that the number one factor in how well a student learns physics is how they engage with the process of learning physics. I don’t just mean how hard they work or how obediently they do what they’re asked to, though of course those are important. I mean how they frame their learning activity: their conscious or unconscious models of what it means to “know” and “do” physics, what they attend to and ignore, and how they perceive themselves as learners and becoming-scientists.

Thus, my thinking focuses more and more on structural changes to the learning environment and to teaching practices that challenge students’ assumptions about these things and that, hopefully, provoke them to re-frame their participation. I also ponder how we, as individual instructors and as an educating system, can rethink our ideas about what “learning,” “school,” and the academic subject of “physics” might look like.

Historically, I’ve been an active proponent of using classroom response systems (“clickers”) and, more recently, small tabletop whiteboards to engage students in effortful sense-making during class. Technology-Enhanced Formative Assessment (TEFA) is the pedagogy that my colleagues and I developed, and I formally articulated, for doing that.

More recently, I’ve been fascinated by what games, especially good video games, do. Good video games are in fact exquisitely crafted learning systems, regardless of whether what they teach is of any relevance outside the game. What if learning physics (or any other academic subject) were as compelling and downright fun as playing a good game? I think that might be possible.

There’s a wide swath of literature on game design, games as learning systems, games designed for education, and game-like ideas incorporated into “normal” courses. It’s quite scattered, and not well connected. For the past few years, I’ve been digesting as much of that as I can and integrating it into a single model of “games as learning systems” that, I hope can inform attempts to design courses that are more game-like — not necessarily in their surface features, but in the deep structure and dynamics of how students engage with them.

I’m also interested in ideas like standards-based grading (SBG), which aims to change the role and impact of assessment and “grades” in a class. I think this is actually approaching some of the same underlying ideas as game-like learning.

Game-Like Course Design

Good video games are highly optimized learning systems, carefully engineered to keep players engaged for long periods of time while they develop and refine skills, explore and become facile navigating novel and often bizarre environments, overcome increasingly difficult challenges at the threshold of their abilities, and piece together understanding of a complex and initially mysterious back-story.

If we can understand how they work, perhaps we develop classroom-based courses that use game-like principles to teach physics more effectively.

Work developing a theoretical model of “video games as learning systems,” to inform game-like course design:

Work experimenting with game-like elements in face-to-face university physics courses:

Standards-Based Grading

Standards-based grading (SBG), also known as “standards-based assessment & reporting” (SBAR) — or is that “standards-based assessment & retention”? — is an alternative approach to grading students’ work and reporting results. “Learning objectives” might be a better term than “standards.” The basic idea is to tie students’ individual scores throughout the course to specific learning objectives (rather than to specific assignments); to allow students to continue working and re-assessing on various objectives until they master them; and to base students’ ultimate course grades only on their final level of mastery of the objectives (rather than on how rapidly they learned, how many tries they required, or how obediently they did their homework). In other words, it’s a grading-and-feedback system that says “all that matters is how well you learn the material by the end of the course,” and that tries to give students useful information about what, specifically, they need more work on.

The idea and ideal are peachy; practical implementation, at least in my context, is another thing entirely. I’ve been investigating the use of SBG in medium-to-large (N ~ 15-60) university-level physics courses through an intermittent set of design experiments. I wrote up what I learned from the first pair here:

After some time off to lick my wounds, I’m getting back on the horse in Fall 2014 for another round. Let’s see how it goes this time.

I learned about SBG mostly via Twitter and blog posts by teachers who are using and discussing it. Following the Twitter hashtag #sbar is a good way to catch some of the conversation, including a wealth of relevant links. A few more “scholarly” works on SBG (meaning journal articles and books) exist; if you’re interested in that, see the bibliography of my above-linked paper for a start. Another entry point is the November 2011 issue of Educational Leadership (Vol 69, No. 3), which is devoted to “effective grading practices”, and which has several articles about SBG. (It’s aimed at the K-12 level, but much is relevant to those of us in higher ed.)

Here are some general “What’s SBG all about?” resources:

Here are some specific implementation thoughts by various teachers (which I don’t necessarily endorse, but look to for ideas):

Clickers and Whiteboards: Tools for the Interactive Classroom

This page is under construction (as in, not actually written yet). I need to refactor and update some older material. For now, I suggest you click on over to a couple of older pages: