August 22, 2012

Think Like a Physicist - Introduction

The first time I ever taught an introductory physics course from top to bottom was as a last-minute summer replacement hire at small liberal arts college.  The schedule was intense: four hours a day every morning and two hours of lab 2-3 afternoons a week. I know I wasn’t the best classroom instructor, but we had a pretty decent lab and the students who took the class and worked hard did make it through, and most importantly they did learn some physics.

One issue that came up, though, about ⅔ of the way through the summer was that the students confessed that they hated the quizzes and exams I gave them, not because they were terribly hard, but because they felt like they could never guess what I (their instructor) was actually thinking when I wrote the question. At first I felt like my worst fears had been realized: that I had wrote confusing and impossibly hard problems. But after talking with them, I came to realize that the level of the questions had been appropriate, it was just that they were trapped in a way of thinking which led them to believe that if they could figure out what I was thinking, they would be able to figure out the answer to the questions.

My response was that the only thing I was thinking was that if they applied the physics principles which we had discussed in class, no student would have any trouble answering the questions.  Clearly, all of the students would breeze through the summer, all of them would earn an A for the course. Of course I was wrong.

I spent much the rest of the course trying to persuade the class that they did not need to be mind readers in order to do well. I’m not sure how many of them actually believed me, but the experienced had a profound effect on my teaching. Ever since then, I’ve tried to do my best to make the physics concepts the central focus of all the classes I teach. It has been a hope of mine that no student would waste any precious study time trying to divine what is going on inside my head.

But, as I looked back at that experience during the summer I first taught physics, I’ve been starting to wonder if maybe there was a lesson that I missed myself. What if the students weren’t so much trying to read my mind, but instead they were trying to think like me? Isn’t that what I wanted? The difference may be subtle, but important, I think. When students are trying to read my mind, they are looking at a problem or question and trying to guess what the professor WANTS them to say. When students are looking at a physics situation and trying to think like their physics professor, they are trying to apply the thought processes and analysis skills of a physicist.

That is exactly what I want from my students.  I want them to think like a physicist.

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