Over at Dynamics of Cats, chief herding theorist Steinn has a post on what we know about how to teach physics:

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 syllabii 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.

“Wait a minute,” you say, “That sounds just like the traditional instruction format.” And you’re right. As Steinn notes later:

This works well.

It is how the physicists of the golden era learned, it is how many senior physicists of the current generation learned.

“But I thought research showed there are better ways to teach,” you say. This is also true. And that’s the conundrum of the post title.

On the one hand, the traditional method of physics education is expensive, labor-intensive, and wasteful. The vast majority of students taking introductory physics never take another class in the subject, in no small part because traditional instruction works to push them out. This is arguably most pronounced in physics, but it’s true of science as a whole.

At the same time, scientists trained in the traditional manner are undeniably effective, astonishingly so. On the list of great achievements of the human species, the Standard Model (incorporating special relativity, ordinary quantum mechanics, and QED) ranks pretty highly. So it’s not like we’ve obviously crippled our scientific endeavors through poor teaching.

The unanswerable question is what are we losing through the “sink or swim” approach? That is, we’ve shown that those who make it through can swim very well indeed, but we have no way of knowing what might have been done by people who said “To hell with this” after half a semester, and climbed out of the pool of potential scientists.

Would we have found a workable theory of quantum gravity by now if we hadn’t been so assiduously pushing people out of physics? There’s no way to know. Is the rise of curricula designed through physics education research producing a new generation of physicists who will be radically superior to past generations in some way? Maybe, maybe not.

What we have learned is that there are ways of teaching physics (and other sciences as well) that do more to engage students in the learning process. These methods have been shown to produce significant improvements over traditional instruction, at least in the area of conceptual learning, while not producing any significant decreases in student learning by more traditional measures (end-of-course exams, and the like).

This seems like a win-win situation, that ought to lead to dramatic improvements in… something. It’s not entirely clear what, though. And there’s the problem of what to do with all those students who are no longer being turned away– there obviously hasn’t been an increase in the number of available jobs for physics students, so what becomes of them? Are students who would have been great physicists under the traditional model being pushed out to make room for others? I doubt it. Are the people drawn in by new methods succeeding in traditional career tracks, or are they disproportionately moving into something else? It’s too soon to really say.

And, of course, as Steinn notes, none of this is any cheaper than the traditional method. Some PER-based methods are significantly more expensive, at least in the short term.

In the end, I tend to believe that having a broader and more diverse pool of students from which the next generation of physicists will be drawn can only be a good thing. I’ll freely admit, though, that I don’t have any concrete mechanism in mind when I say this, so it could just be my squishy liberal bias. If nothing else, though, doing a better job with the introductory classes will reduce the number of awkward conversations in which somebody I just met tells me how much they hated physics in school. That might not provide much concrete benefit for science or society, but it’d make me happier.

Comments

  1. #1 Art
    June 7, 2011

    From my admittedly limited experience as a student, I would say that the sink or swim approach works quite well. The system seems to select for a combination of two qualities: aptitude and work ethic. Clearly those who possess both will excel.

    Those who have aptitude but lack work ethic will probably be successful anyways. I know a fair number of these people, and they seem to eventually figure out the work ethic part.

    Those who have work ethic and lack aptitude can still be quite successful. I would put myself in this category: B average in undergrad physics, poor physics GRE score, rejected from all of the top-10 physics grad schools that I applied to, and I’m never going to work out a theory of quantum gravity. I would say that I was definitely pushed out of the traditional system for training of physicists. However, I’m about to finish a PhD in an engineering field and landed a $100k/yr engineering job, so I’m quite happy with the way things have worked out.

    Folks who have no aptitude for science and a poor work ethic can still transfer over to the business school.

  2. #2 Lassi Hippeläinen
    June 7, 2011

    The unanswerable question is what are we losing through the “sink or swim” approach?

    Lots of talent. And not just from your own lab, but also from others. And in the process ruin the lives of some students.

    There are at least three kinds of physics students:
    1) those who need the basic education, but who don’t aim for a MSc in physics (e.g. engineers in otherwise non-physical jobs)
    2) those who get a MSc, but don’t take up a career in science (e.g. teachers and most of engineers)
    3) those who go for PhD and stay in science (future professors)

    Most of my fellow students were type 2. Some of the professors only cared for type 1, which is by far the smallest group. If you didn’t succeed in their labs, you were just trash. Possibly dropping out of university because of burn-out. Missing even type 1 education.

    Those profs may bask in the glory for scientific breakthroughs, because nobody cares about the collateral carnage they have left behind. But universities are not just research institutions. The have also responsibility for their students, and for the society that provides them their funding.

    I for one would like to see a study on what happened to those students that were thrown in the garbage dump. What is the social cost of the “sink or swim” approach?

  3. #3 Paul
    June 7, 2011

    As a math/CS undergrad with primarily humanities friends, I helped a handful of people survive Calculus. Calc I is easy once you’ve got the intuition for it: understand that acceleration/velocity, slope/area, derivative/integral are all complementary views, learn a couple derivative rules, and you’re basically set. In a one-on-one setting you can almost “debug” somebody’s misunderstandings. Watch what they get wrong, keep discussing an idea in multiple ways until you see there eyes light up. In the end, they all seemed surprised it was this easy. I’ve got no doubt a couple small group tutoring sessions can have a huge impact on final grade.

    This discussion of sink-or-swim has me wondering, though, whether that is actually better. My friends came away understanding Calculus (at least temporarily), but did they miss the opportunity to refine their own “debugging” skills? I could share my intuitions on Calculus with them, but I had to develop those intuitions on my own. When you reach the edges of a field and suddenly there isn’t anyone who can teach you anymore, are you handicapped by not having developed skills to build your own mental models and detect where they break down?

    Interesting stuff to consider…

  4. #4 grad
    June 7, 2011

    I suspect that you’re probably right about all of this, but it always strikes me as being similar to the idea that there are meaningful cost saving to be had by eliminating fraud, waste and abuse in the medicare system. (I.e. it’s something people tell themselves because that’s what they want to believe.)

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    June 7, 2011

    Lots of talent. And not just from your own lab, but also from others. And in the process ruin the lives of some students

    Absolutely.
    The question, though, is whether the talent we’re losing is better talent than the talent we’re keeping– that is, have we driven the next [famous physicist of your choice] out of the field early, or are the people who are leaving because of crappy introductory instruction people who wouldn’t be any better than the people they replace.

    Regarding the ruination of lives, I suspect that is unavoidable given that there’s no realistic prospect for a vast increase in the number of available jobs. In fact, most of the current life-ruining probably stems less from the poor quality of instruction than from the limited job market.

    So if we do a better job of not driving out people at the intro level, we will likely be setting them up to be crushed at some later point, when they can’t get the sort of job they really want to get. Then the question is whether the people who get crushed under a more inclusive educational system are the same people who got crushed under sink-or-swim, or if we’ve just shifted the pain around to a different subset of the pool at a different point in their careers.

    I’m generally in favor of softening the sink-or-swim approach, just on the grounds that some of the traditional system is frankly inhumane. I don’t think we can completely eliminate it, though, and I think any attempt to broaden the appeal of introductory classes also needs to be accompanied by some attempt to improve the job prospects of the additional students being drawn in. That’s something that probably deserves more discussion than it gets.

  6. #6 Pam
    June 7, 2011

    doing a better job with the introductory classes will reduce the number of awkward conversations in which somebody I just met tells me how much they hated physics in school.

    Seriously, why do people do that? To this day, I have an irrational dislike of a close friend’s wife because one of the first things she said to me, right after we just met was, “Oh, I TOTALLY HATE physics.”

    As to the main point, I have doubts about how well these new-fangled teaching methods can be sustained throughout an advanced education in physics. I mean, I believe the research that shows their effectiveness, but it’s mostly in introductory courses, right? There comes a point where you just have to learn Hilbert space math, field theory, and oh yeah, some stuff about actual particles and waves all at the same time, and the most important skill for a student to have is the ability to suck it up and suffer through it.

  7. #7 Moshe
    June 7, 2011

    I don’t think there is a conundrum, unless you insist of having a monolithic view of “teaching physics” as one activity serving one purpose. For example, introductory classes are taught mainly to non-majors and their main purpose is (or should be) introducing wide variety of society to basics of qualitative thinking. Advanced classes are taught with more focus of producing professional physicists, and are usually much more rigorous and demanding. Whatever approach works for one purpose might not work for another.

    In defence of the sink-or-swim approach – I for one enjoyed these classes more since they were fast paced, challenging and interesting, whereas I’d admit to sitting there twiddling my thumbs (or just skipping) many of the introductory classes.

  8. #8 tcmJOE
    June 7, 2011

    Regarding the ruination of lives, I suspect that is unavoidable given that there’s no realistic prospect for a vast increase in the number of available jobs. In fact, most of the current life-ruining probably stems less from the poor quality of instruction than from the limited job market.

    Pretty much this, yes. I doubt we’d have a good working theory of quantum gravity unless our political system decided it was worth doing something like doubling the number of theoretical physicist jobs available.

    Other notes:
    - There are so many scientific/technological advances where multiple people discover something at approximately the same time (invention of calculus, creation of the phone, BECs…) that the addition or removal of a few people would probably be noise in the timelime of science.
    - What do the brilliant people who dropped out physics do? Chemistry? Engineering? Maybe their big contribution to society is then not quantum gravity but is helping drop the price of solar cells a few notches; it’s still a big technical contribution. Or maybe they help classify a new language, or write a few fiction books worth reading.

  9. #9 ScentOfViolets
    June 7, 2011

    Speaking as a math teacher with a no doubt healthy dose of self-interest, why not get all the math out of the way first, say up to the first class on partial differential equations?[1]

    Chalk it up to a self-serving canard, but I believe you can’t have too much math, whatever you finally do decide to do with your life.

    [1]Chosen because it was the first class I had with um, bimodal consequences in physics. Somehow it slipped through the cracks that partial diffeq was a requirement for the first QM class. And if anyone asked about the prerequisites, they were told not to worry, you’ll pick enough of the partial stuff along the way to pass ;-) Turns out that on something like the second day, someone raised their hand and asked “What’s a separable equation?” The class went downhill from there, with a lot of A’s and C’s, very few B’s at the end.

  10. #10 bph
    June 7, 2011

    My undergrad courses did almost everything Steinn suggests.
    * We had the math required for the physics first (up through vector calc.)
    * We had labs concurrent with the lectures.
    * We had weekly homework, graded by the next week.
    * The majority of the grade was based on the final given at the end of the term.

    Only one person my year went to grad school in science, so I guess it worked.

  11. #11 MRW
    June 7, 2011

    Pam – Same thing happens to chemists. Telling someone you hate the subject they’ve made a career out of is not the best way to start a conversation.

    Then there was the doctor who told me he got a C in chemistry. It probably doesn’t matter (he could’ve become a harder worker later on, and the amount of chemistry a doctor really needs to understand is limited) but it’s really not the best way to instill confidence in a new patient.

  12. #12 Eric Lund
    June 7, 2011

    ScentOfViolets asks: why not get all the math out of the way first, say up to the first class on partial differential equations?

    Because that means most students (at least in semester-based systems) would be taking introductory mechanics as either second-term sophomores or first-term juniors, and it would become difficult if not impossible to fit a physics or engineering major into a four-year program. In the US, most students do not take calculus in high school, and most of those who do take it again (often for good reasons) in college if they plan on majoring in a STEM field. Remember also that many upper-level engineering classes would be incomprehensible without the physics background.

    As it is, most university physics departments make a significant compromise by having their students wait until the second term of their freshman year (this seems to be true of both semester-based and quarter-based universities) in order to ensure that these students already have Calculus I under their belt. Given that many engineering major programs have rigorous requirements often exceeding generic university requirements in terms of required credit hours, it would be hard to push the start of the physics coursework further back and still have a viable engineering program.

    A better solution, which has been offered on an experimental basis at my present university, is to have a combined math/physics course which is specifically designed to ensure that the two subjects are covered at appropriately parallel levels and that the links between the two are made clear. But it is expensive to do this, which is why this combined course has not been made the default choice for prospective STEM majors.

  13. #13 Alex
    June 7, 2011

    Actually, there is one crucial element on Steinn’s list that is NOT found in most curricula in the US (traditional or progressive): Tutorial sessions of 2-5 students (max) meeting with the professor for an hour.

    Yes, yes, I am aware that many schools have “recitation sections” with 20 students (or whatever) sitting in a room with a TA, and I am aware that some of them use “tutorials” that emphasize conceptual understanding. However, this is completely different from the old-school tutorials that the Oxbridge schools have used for a thousand years. That system, a couple of bright kids spending an hour or so with a professor, is simply not scalable, but it is probably the best possible system in the world if you can afford it. It’s customizable, so the weak students can get help and the strong students can be shown things that they’d otherwise never see.

    We do have something called “office hours”, but they are often the loneliest hours of the week.

    Finally, regarding the more modern conceptual tutorials and terminology: I remember once having dinner with a Physics Education Researcher and an Oxbridge graduate. The Oxbridge graduate referred to “tutorials” and the PER person got all excited to hear that these ancient institutions were using hip, progressive, interactive conceptual methods. The Oxbridg person was trying to explain the tutorial system over there, but it wasn’t quite getting through. Finally, seeing two people talking past each other, I interjected and tried to explain to the PER person that an Oxbridge tutorial is far more ancient than PER, and is probably done at a mathematical level that far exceeds anything proposed by the PER crowd (which almost always emphasizes concepts over math).

  14. #14 Alex
    June 7, 2011

    As it is, most university physics departments make a significant compromise by having their students wait until the second term of their freshman year (this seems to be true of both semester-based and quarter-based universities) in order to ensure that these students already have Calculus I under their belt

    Furthermore, if you look at most of the problems in the ostensibly calculus-based freshman books, it’s not clear how much calculus you actually have to know to take those classes. Yes, yes, professors use it in derivations, but how much of the homework can be done without calculus?

    The effects of this are felt downstream. I would argue that Taylor’s upper-division mechanics book is a truly excellent book, but I would also argue that it is also at a lower level than some out there because Taylor recognized (correctly!) that most students come out of freshman mechanics without doing much in the way of calculus. Taylor plugs the gaps while still providing a very solid foundation, and I am happy to use his book, but I think it’s very true that Taylor teaches things that physics majors of an earlier decade might have already known, at some level.

  15. #15 John Novak
    June 7, 2011

    Every time people bring up alternate teaching methods and better outcomes from them, the unstated question is, “Better outcome for what?

    Although physics profs often fall into the trap of assuming that their best students are always obviously going to go the physics professor route themselves, we all know that’s not true. Some will go get PhDs in physics and do industry science stuff. Some will do that and do non-physics stuff. Many are just engineers or majors in different science disciplines.

    I cannot possibly imagine that the best training regime for future academic research physicists is the same as that for someone getting an MS in some tangentially related engineering field who’s going to go on to do strongly industry-related product design.

    The latter will probably benefit greatly from the more modern, hands-on, active participant approaches: The vast majority of engineers need to understand physics and be able to apply it, after we’ve looked it up in a books.

    But the former are probably the people who want to motivate to beat their heads against the wall solving every problem in Jackson, because if need to know something inside and out, that’s how you learn. You don’t want to motivate them out of the program, but you do want to motivate them to work very hard and independently.

  16. #16 thm
    June 8, 2011

    As Chad mentions, the enterprise of physics–with whatever process flaws it might have–has been amazingly successful, and it’s already producing more Ph.D.s than there are traditional job openings. Without industries analogous to the chemical or biotech industries, the case for why we need more physics students needs more than a handful of platitudes; I, for one, am not convinced that we do.

    But in any case, how far up the curriculum do physics-teaching-reform ideas go? Is anyone doing, say, an active engagement version of Jackson’s Classical Electrodynamics? Certainly one eventually needs some degree of mastery over graduate-level material, if one is to successfully make it through any pipeline and actually become a physicist. Is there any physics education research that shows that this sort of mastery can be achieved without the seemingly endless hours spent working through challenging problems, largely alone?

    Physics has much in common with athletics and music, with the sink-or-swim approach, the ability spectrum both within the field and between professionals and the general public, and the availability of the sort of ‘major-league’ jobs that all entrants in these fields aspire to. At least as of ten years ago, there were roughly equal numbers of NBA rookies as there were physics job openings at Ph.D.-granting institutions, and there were roughly as many physics Ph.D.s produced each year as there are in one class year of NCAA-D1 basketball players. Which is to say, the probability that a physics Ph.D. would get a tenure-track job at a ‘big-league’ Ph.D.-granting university is roughly the same as the probability that a D1 basketball player would make it to the NBA.

    So yes, the years of obsessively long hours of practicing needed to make it to the NBA or as a professional violinist undoubtedly cause many a budding basketball player or violinist to do something else, but there aren’t widespread calls to reform these systems. So why physics?

  17. #17 Lassi Hippeläinen
    June 8, 2011

    Maybe the “conundrum” is due to an ill defined problem. What is the point of view? Professors wanting Nobel Prices? Students wanting a livelihood? Society not wanting to waste talent? In each case the answer is different.

    tcmJOE #8: “- What do the brilliant people who dropped out physics do? Chemistry? Engineering? Maybe their big contribution to society is then not quantum gravity but is helping drop the price of solar cells a few notches; it’s still a big technical contribution. Or maybe they help classify a new language, or write a few fiction books worth reading.”

    Yes, that is my main point. Students should not sink, they should be directed to something else, where their talents are needed. In industry it is in fact better to have studied two fields.

    thm #16: “Physics has much in common with athletics and music, with the sink-or-swim approach [...]”

    Definitely yes. After graduation I took up kayaking as a hobby. I wasn’t into racing (more in touring and week long expeditions), but I noticed the similarity immediately. In order to squeeze the last drop of performance the coach/prof made sure that the athlete/student didn’t have any alternative careers in their minds. Most racers dropped out, but could recover and go to some other endurance sport. An academic student may not have that alternative left, and burns out, to the loss of everybody.

  18. #18 Lassi Hippeläinen
    June 8, 2011

    Eric Lund #12: “A better solution, which has been offered on an experimental basis at my present university, is to have a combined math/physics course which is specifically designed to ensure that the two subjects are covered at appropriately parallel levels and that the links between the two are made clear.”

    That would be excellent! In my case math and phys progressed in parallel at the same pace, with the difference that math was one semester late, because they spent the first semester building things up from Peano Axioms. Trying to change that was impossible, because the subjects were taught under different chairs, in different faculties, and with different goals.

    Those pesky mathematicians tried the sink-or-swim thing on us physics students. As collateral damage some of us dropped out of quantum mechanics. Self-educating math while studying QM was a bit steep. Me included – I had heard the sirens of computer science calling for some time. Physics got downgraded to a sidekick (width in stead of depth), but it was still useful during my industry years.

  19. #19 ObsessiveMathsFreak
    June 8, 2011

    As someone who would consider themselves mathematical-physics oriented, I have always found that there is indeed a sink or swim attitude on the physics side of things, which is far less pronounced than on the mathematics side.

    In mathematics, results are usually proved in detail, and theories explained and examined. In physics, the dominant theme is simply to dive into the deep end of the problem, slog around with equations underwater, and hopefully mange to resurface with a result of some kind. Kind of an academic pearl diving if you will. It’s not a very helpful attitude. It’s unsurprising that many students “drown”.

    I should also mention that when the mathematics gets really hairy, the physicists do have a greater tendency to “omit” certain steps or take fairly “bold” leaps. I also digress by noting that re-normalisation is still the dominant technique for resolving divergences in QED.

  20. #20 Charles Baily
    June 8, 2011

    I recently completed my doctorate in Physics Education Research, but I got my bachelor’s back in the early 90′s, and so I feel that I have a good sense of the differences between “traditional” education and “research-based” education. We are seeing a shift in paradigm with respect to physics teaching (and teaching in general) and I think we can only be the better for it. What should be the goal of instruction if not for students to learn the material? I recall now (in horror) the way my first college physics professor essentially bragged to the class that Physics I (along with Calc I) was the most often repeated course at our university. To this day, the only reason I can think that someone would take such pride in so many people failing his course, is that it just made him and his ilk look all the smarter to themselves and the general public. It makes me think of pedantic, nitpicking intellectuals who use big words and jargon in order to intimidate non-specialists – the goal of communication is lost to the goal of boosting one’s ego. Like those posting above, I cringe everytime I tell someone I’ve just met what I do, only to hear about how much they hated physics in school. (Usually, I start off by telling people that I am “a teacher”, and see where it goes from there.) The physics community has been a fairly exclusive club for a very long time, comprised primarily of white males (of which I am one), and I believe a lot of traditional faculty won’t cop to feeling threatened by suggesting that more people could do what they do if our courses weren’t aimed primarily at the top 10% of students (with everyone else just coming along for the ride). They’re basically asserting that anyone who can’t learn the material in the same way they did isn’t cut out to be a decent physicist to begin with. They deny the effect on wonderfully smart people who look around at the physics faculty and don’t see anyone of their color or gender – it sends a strong message that those people don’t have a place in that world, and they go on to do other things. We may not need more PhD physicists, but we can certainly benefit from expanding the pool from which future physicists are selected. And sadly, many traditional faculty view high school teaching as a “waste” of good talent, but when less than 1/3 of high school physics classes are taught by someone who majored or minored in physics in college, it should be obvious that we need a lot more talent “wasted” in the classrooms preparing those who might go on to study physics. We need more people studying (and understanding, and loving) physics! This will not happen when we act as though the our primary goal is preparing future university physics faculty.

    Personally, I think a lot of people are in denial about the effectiveness of traditional teaching methods. You have to ask yourself, what does it mean when a student who received an ‘A’ in my introductory course doesn’t score well on the Force Concept Inventory (which essentially only tests whether you understand Newton’s Laws)? For myself, I was accepted at two “top-5″ graduate schools for physics, but it wasn’t until I taught an introductory conceptual physics course that I realized I didn’t have a full appreciation of the meaning and implications of Newton’s Third Law, nor the ability to articulate that understanding in simple words (I had been relying throughout most of my studies on the math, at which I was very good). The mistaken assumption is that, if the student can correctly set up the problem and “turn the crank”, then they’ve mastered the material. They may have gotten the right answer, but that doesn’t mean they understand what the answer means physically, or know how to judge whether the answer is reasonable. It is expected that good physicists should be able to do this (and many will learn this on their own), but this way of thinking is usually not explicitly taught or assessed in traditional courses, and this is one aspect of instruction that is a focus of PER.

    PER may have gotten started with (and is still dominated by) introductory physics, but, for example, my dissertation was on student learning in quantum mechanics, and I am currently working as a post-doc researcher studying how our upper-division electricity and magnetism courses are taught. It is wrong to criticize PER as simply valuing concepts over math – one of our main focuses is making a math-physics connection (understanding what the equations mean, rather than just churning them out algorithmically); and there are physics concepts associated with mathematical techniques, such as using symmetry to eliminate certain terms in a series solution, or understanding why specific boundary conditions lead to different types of solutions. I don’t believe the goal (or outcome) of research-based course transformations is to “dumb down” the course to the detriment of future physicists. No one has shown that students in PER-based courses are less capable of solving traditional problems than their counterparts (and the best students will excel in either case), but it has been shown that they understand more of the basic physics concepts – how can that be bad? The real goal is rather to ensure that more students understand the core material in a meaningful way (i.e. they don’t forget it the week after finals), to the benefit of most everyone. I would rather have the majority of my students thoroughly understand 10 concepts, than have most leaving the class with a superficial understanding of 15.

  21. #21 Alex
    June 8, 2011

    Charles, would you care to elaborate on this?

    …and I believe a lot of traditional faculty won’t cop to feeling threatened by suggesting that more people could do what they do if our courses weren’t aimed primarily at the top 10% of students (with everyone else just coming along for the ride). They’re basically asserting that anyone who can’t learn the material in the same way they did isn’t cut out to be a decent physicist to begin with. They deny the effect on wonderfully smart people who look around at the physics faculty and don’t see anyone of their color or gender – it sends a strong message that those people don’t have a place in that world, and they go on to do other things.

    You segued from the top 10% issue to color and gender. I don’t want to misinterpret you, so I’ll ask you to elaborate on it. As it stands, I could think of some plausible but problematic interpretations of that statement.

  22. #22 Charles Baily
    June 8, 2011

    I’d be happy to clarify. I would never accuse any individual of being deliberately sexist or racially biased (without actual evidence), and I’m sure every well-meaning traditionalist would say (and genuinely believe) they don’t discriminate in their courses when it comes to handing out grades. When we think (and talk) about these “top 10%” of students, I’m sure that most of us aren’t thinking in terms of race or gender, but rather in terms of achievement. The real question is: Who are these top 10% of students, and how did they get there? Systematic discrimination is much, much harder to perceive than individual discrimination.

    How do gender and race issues manifest themselves in a physics classroom? Is there anything sexist about F=ma? Well, maybe, but certainly not on the surface. I think it is a common belief that males are better at math than females, often supported by the fact that a gender disparity exists in math SAT scores. Imagine my surprise when I found out that, prior to 1972, females were scoring higher than males on the math portion of the SAT. Since everyone “knows” that men are better at math than women, they decided to correct for this by putting more geometry, and fewer algebra, problems on the exam. Apparently, males perform better on problems involving spatial relationships, while women are better at more abstract calculation. Ever since, males score higher on the SAT. According to Londa Schiebinger (Stanford), women also perform better on essay and open-ended questions, as well as contextual questions (being able to identify the amount and type of information needed to solve a problem), while performing less well on multiple-choice questions and under time pressure.

    The most obvious way this manifests itself in education is the fact that males tend to do better on exams and females tend to do better on homework, so whose skills are being rewarded in a “traditional” physics course where final grades are determined primarily by exam scores (usually 60% or more of the total grade)? Why do we reward high-pressure (and highly artificial) individual achievement over (potentially) collaborative achievement (and which is more like real life)? Why reward algorithmic problem-solving over the deeper understanding that comes from interactive engagement, peer-instruction, and other transformations to the “traditional” curriculum and methods of teaching? What traditionalists aren’t recognizing is that EVEN OUR BEST STUDENTS are not learning what we think they are learning, and they’re often learning things in the classroom that we didn’t intend to teach them – I think Eric Mazur (Harvard) has been the best spokesman when it comes to talking about this “elephant in the room”: traditional methods of instruction are not effective for teaching physics.

    Lauren Kost (Colorado) had done a lot of work recently on gender disparity in the classroom. In the course of her investigations, she found that the greatest predictor of success in introductory college physics (by the usual standards, but also by others) was whether a person had taken physics in high school. Now consider that most states (I believe) don’t require high school physics to graduate, most high school physics classes are being taught by people who don’t know a lot about physics (see my post above), and many high schools don’t even offer physics classes at all. Given the inequities in our society (social and economic), I don’t think it’s problematic to suggest that “teaching to the top10%” is a systematic way of propagating inequities that begin long before our students get to our classrooms. We don’t “mean” to do it, and much of this is outside of our control, but the first step (obviously) is awareness. There is an eye-opening and very readable article on “stereotype threat” in the Atlantic Monthly:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/08/thin-ice-stereotype-threat-and-black-college-students/4663/

  23. #23 Alex
    June 8, 2011

    Charles,

    I didn’t think you were making accusations. I thought that you were identifying the top 10% with particular backgrounds, something that (in the absence of the context you provide) would be….a rather problematic assumption, to say the least.

    Your context makes sense.

  24. #24 ezra abrams
    June 9, 2011

    it is not a conundrum
    Rather, the poor quality of past instruction drove out all but the tiny minority of students who were either so brilliant it didn’t matter what the school did, or were so geeky and friendless that they stuck with it anyway.

    Besides, is their any evidence whatsoever that we need more physicists ? if we stopped the workfare projects like the space station and fusion reactors, and scaled the LHC in geneva to something reasonable, there would be thousands of unemployed physics PhDs; course, most of ‘em have no clue how to do something that isn’t isotopically pure gold plated, but loss of a paycheck focuses the mind

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