It’s that time of year again, when I start thinking about my fall term classes. I would really prefer to put it off for another couple of weeks, and I will put off spending much time on class prep in favor of finishing up some paper-writing and other things, but when the calendar turns to August, I inevitably start thinking about what I’m going to be doing in September, no matter how much I’d like to be thinking about other things instead. This year is worse than most, because I’m planning to really shake things up with regard to the way I teach the intro mechanics course.
I’ve been doing more or less the same thing since I started, albeit with a couple of changes of curriculum, first to a locally designed sequence, and more recently to the Matter and Interactions curriculum. My teaching style has been more or less the same throughout, though– I tend to mostly lecture off PowerPoint, with frequent stops for in-class questions and example problems.
Lately, though, this hasn’t been working all that well. The last few times through the course, I’ve had a harder and harder time getting students to participate in class. When I ask questions, they just sit there; when I do an example on the board, then ask them to do a similar problem themselves, they doodle aimlessly and say they don’t have any idea what to do. It’s been very frustrating, and that drives me to do even more lecturing, because if they’re not going to talk in class, I might as well do all the talking.
This is highly sub-optimal, as there’s tons of education research showing that a traditional lecture format doesn’t work as well as more active techniques, including a paper I ResearchBlogged earlier this year. I’ve been trying to nod toward this by doing more active engagement in a halfway sort of fashion, but it’s clearly not working all that well.
So, not without some trepidation, I’m going to double down.
That is, in my introductory mechanics course this fall, I’m going to try to go much farther in the active learning direction. I’m going to try to cut my lecturing down to almost nothing in favor of in-class discussion/ problem solving/ questions/ etc.
I’m more than a little apprehensive about this, because everything I’ve read about this suggests that the key to making these techniques work is getting students to read the textbook ahead of time (that this produces benefits is not exactly surprising). And that’s been a huge problem with our students in the past– when I implemented pre-lab quizzes last year, asking students to read the lab handout the night before lab and answer a handful of multiple-choice questions about the lab, I got a bunch of student evaluation comments complaining that this was a ridiculously unreasonable imposition. I’m a little nervous about what they’ll do when asked to read the textbook and come to class ready to talk about it.
There are some reasons why that isn’t necessarily the kiss of death for the whole idea, though, primarily the fact that my section last winter was one of several, and I was the only professor doing pre-lab quizzes. This fall, I’m teaching the one and only section of intro mechanics, so they won’t be able to compare notes with their friends in other sections and conclude that they’re being assigned extra work. And, you know, I have tenure, so even if the experiment fails, I’m not putting my career in jeopardy.
There are a few other things that make me really nervous, though. Such as the recent Ph.D. thesis from the Georgia Tech PER group looking at Matter and Interactions and finding that some of the results aren’t what you might hope for. I talked about part of this a while back, and it’s blogged at length (one, two, three) at the Computing Education Blog (with, obviously, a focus on the numerical-modeling parts of the curriculum). That makes me wonder about the whole project, though there are some obvious lessons to take away from the Georgia Tech stuff that can help avoid the same pitfalls.
There are also logistical issues: our crazy trimester calendar means we have to try to cram most of a semester’s worth of physics into just 10 weeks, which is always a huge challenge. Most of the active-learning approaches I’ve read about go slightly slower than their traditional-lecture counterparts, which could be a problem, as we don’t have that much slack in the class schedule. A lot of the example lectures and so on that I’ve seen also seem to presume a separate TA-led recitation session where students go through homework-type problems in detail, so class time is spent only on basic conceptual stuff. Again, we don’t have that luxury, so I’ll have to do as much of the problem-solving stuff in class as possible.
Writing out all the negatives like that makes this seem like a completely crazy project, and as I said, I’m nervous about this. At the same time, though, there are some definite upsides. If I can get the students to buy in and do the reading, I hope to be able to do some of the more open-ended model building stuff that Rhett and Dan Meyer and people like that talk about. Things like the roller slide problem (the answer is here), even (though that one would have to wait until the very end of the term). And that sounds like a lot more fun than just doing the same examples over and over again.
It’s going to be a ton of work, though, and it might fail spectacularly. But I’ve more or less hit the limits of what I’m doing now, so I might as well try it…
(Pointers to really good resources for this sort of thing– beyond the stuff at Compadre and that I can get from the Matter and Interactions folks– would be much appreciated. Shoot me an email, or leave me a link in the comments.)