Research & Experimentation

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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.