There has been a lot of effort to try to figure out how to teach physics better, at the university level, in the US.
Of course, we know perfectly well how to do that.
To teach physics well, you provide an intensive, mathematically rigorous in-sequence series of classes.
You need at least two different parallel classes per term, each class a prerequisite for the succeeding class and coordinated syllabi
i for parallel and successive classes, providing an initial short review of the previous material.
You also need a parallel sequence of coordinated mathematics classes, such that the mathematics needed for a physics class are taught before it is needed for the physics.
The base presentation can be done by lecture, there is a role for such.
However, in parallel with such you need two further teaching elements:
you need labs, which are on the same material as the lectures, and which are in sequence with the lecture material, ie you do a lab on a topic right after it is presented in lecture;
further, you need weekly, or twice weekly, “tutorials”, where 2-5 students, no more, meet individually with faculty for an hour, or so, and discuss the material in depth.
Attendance being mandatory, of course. Participation also.
This also requires frequent written homework – weekly, in fact, which is graded promptly so students can be provided with feedback and corrections.
Further, the homework should be long, math intensive questions.
To reinforce learning and retention, exams should not generally be during term time, or in class – exams should be long written finals, at the end of term, or even in subsequent terms.
No multiple choice questions; few, if any, short answer questions; long questions requiring 20-60 minute answers per question.
This works well.
It is how the physicists of the golden era learned, it is how many senior physicists of the current generation learned.
You do this at selective universities, recruiting from the top 10% of the student population, as measured by some broad correlator for general achievement, preferably not a multiple choice test.
Further, you insists on only admitting students with strong K-12 preparation: that means calculus 1-3 years before university, and several years of introductory physics.
It is wasteful, you lose most of the students who never got the right preparation but who might have been good.
It educates physicists. Not engineers, or pre-meds.
It is also incredibly expensive.
It is labour intensive, and requires a very low student/faculty ratio, large numbers of faculty for a small number of majors.
But it works.
So… the debate about teaching physics is not about how to teach physics, it is about two very different things.
1) Can we provide effective cheap mass education in the physical sciences?
Given that we can’t afford tutorials etc., can we provide the same improvement in technical ability and comprehension with large modular classes, taught out of sequence with streamlined testing, but using technology and cognitive tools for improved pedagogy?
But, we can do a lot better than dumb lectures and we ought to do as well as we can.
Particularly for general education – education of students who need basic physics comprehension but are not intended physics majors.
2) Can we extricate additional physics majors from the general pool, at cheap universities?
We always have. While a disproportionate fraction of physics majors and research physicists come from the expensive resource rich exclusive universities, there is always a steady stream of students who essentially self-educate – who have the smarts and intensity to excel given the slightest access to real education opportunity.
And, we all suspect that for each student like that, there are many who would do as well given a bit of a nudge, or who could be not alienated from the subject at some earlier stage.
Any improvement in teaching anywhere along the line which increased the flow of physicists would be well worth it.
The real goal is still part 1) – trying to implant real comprehension, a feel for physics, in a broader non-physics audience. Smart good students who need to know physics at a much deeper level than is generally reached.
This is very hard to do, and I suspect that while “gimmicks” help, and certainly understanding cognitive tasks helps, success will be limited.
Got to try though.