Fit for Physics

Ah, semester has started, and with it comes the grind of studying for the big test, where callow highschoolers finally get to see if they can make it in the big leagues.

Here we see them in lecture:

PSU football team meeting

One of the 30 or so in class lectures before the test

Yes, football players go to lectures.

About football, as well as whatever other subjects they are taking.

The coach gets up there, talks about football and shit, and they all listen, and nod, and maybe take some notes, and check their cool pics on facebook, and text their friends, and nap... afterwards they go their separate ways back to their rooms and vegetate.

Then, y'know, they have a test, a practicum we'd call it, where they go out and do some football, show what they can do, properly proctored of course.

If they're real swots, maybe they read the "playbook" the night before, or at least the parts they think will come up in the game, you know, try to figure out what "plays" the coach will call on them to show them during the test.
I mean there are way more plays in the lectures and book than could actually show up during the game, so focus on the ones that coach is likely to actually call.



But that is more or less what many physics students think they can do for a 30-45 lecture physics class - show up to lectures, take some notes, maybe read things over the night before, and then they are surprised and angry when they do badly in the test.

Now think about what football players actually do as part of their preparation to play.

First of all, they have to have general physical fitness - by itself that is not sufficient to play good football, but it is necessary. They have to have strength, speed, endurance, co-ordination, as a minimum. For some positions you need other general physical skills like catching or kicking.

For physics, the equivalent is mathematics - you need the mathematical training to begin doing physics, your arithmetic, algebra, geometry and calculus. You may also need other mathematical skills, like statistics or group theory, depending on what sort of physics you end up doing.

But, sitting through lectures and reading the book will still not let you play football at the college level, even if your general maths fitness level is excellent.
You need to workout on your own, do homework where you practise your skills; you also need labs, where you run through the plays - actually doing the physics rather than hearing about it and reading about it.

But even that is not enough - you need to get some fellow physicists together and run through elements of the plays both with someone guiding you in structured sessions (coach, assistant, other player), and by getting some friends together and working through things together on your own.

To really do well though, even that is not enough, you have to like football, and incorporate it into your life: watch football, watch other college games, watch the pro football games, play football video games, and talk football with your friends.
Analyse how others play and find their errors, and what they do well.

Then you will do well in physics.

Seriously: we will no more do better educating physicists by changing lecture pedagogy than the football team would improve by having players break into small group discussion sessions during team meetings - not that that doesn't help, a little bit, rather the main problems are the other off the field issues.

To do well you need the fitness - the mathematics to apply to physics; you need the repetition of homework, working through the concepts and tasks; you need the labs, where you actually do physics; you need to do work beyond the minimum assigned, where you set yourself tasks; most of all you need to interact with the other players, where you talk over the lecture, go over the book interactively, talk about the homework problems, the tests, the labs, and what else is going on in physics in the world.

The lecture provides the framework, it outlines the playbook, shows you some examples of what you are going to face, discusses the general concept and coaching philosophy - but it is not the primary means for delivering the detailed knowledge needed to actually do physics, to pass the test, that comes from repetition, hard work, and learning.

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Do you give a slightly modified version on the first day of class? I think the general problem is that few beginning college students get this, and even fewer try to apply it.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 02 Sep 2012 #permalink

I like this little comparison very much! In fact, I like it so much that I've placed a link to it on the front page of my web page for our 'physics orientation' course. I'll mention it on the first day of class, which is tomorrow (ugh).

By Michael Richmond (not verified) on 02 Sep 2012 #permalink

Well, I've been pondering something like this since the great war on introductory lectures debates last year, but the little photo of the PSU football lecture just clinched the concept for me.

I'm not in line to do a large intro class for majors in the near future, I will riff on it somewhere though.

I'm teaching a junior/senior level class. I require students to submit at least two sentences of questions or other feedback or about the reading, at least one hour prior to class. I review their responses and adapt class discussion accordingly.
On the second or third day of class, one student apologized for not submitting anything and explained, "I didn't submit any questions about the reading, because I'm not used to having to read anything before class." (quotes approximate)
Another student explained that he didn't like classes that had homework every week.
Sigh. I guess I'll be getting low evaluations this semester.

By Iknowwhereyour… (not verified) on 02 Sep 2012 #permalink

I find this approach appalling. Here are some of my objections:
1) PSU football obsession? Don't feed it. Just don't. Evil lies that way, as you should well know.
2) Sexism much? The analogy works equally well with gymnastics or dance. Why would you intentionally try to get students to relate to physics through something not all of your students are even allowed to do???
3) When undergrads hear how they Must Live the Subject from profs in multiple subjects, it is crystal clear how out of touch the profs are. Yes, this is how most people who became profs got that way. No, it is not how every student (even those that major in your subject) must approach every subject in order to do well. You have to triage Living The Subject if you want to get through 4-5 classes.
5) If you could pay your physics majors in good scholarships to focus on physics, I think you could demand the same level of commitment as football players.
6) What is more helpful is actual data. Ask your students how much they study, how they spend that time, and find the R^2 between hours/week in different activities and final course grade. Then you can tell the next batch of students at the beginning of the semester what it actually takes.


1) Saturday there were 106,000 people here watching a football game. Lets just say the theme was topical.
I find the rather shallow analysis of the Sandusky crimes trite and counterproductive, and somehow pretending football is inherently evil or that any discussion of it somehow is tainted is irrational.

2) I would invite you do write your own analogy of gymnastics or dance (though I have to say that one of the largest long running pedophile scandals in my home town involved a well known and much beloved classical dance teacher...). Had I thought of this earlier this summer I might have used womens' gymnastics as an analogy, though some of the parallels fail in that instance.
Did I mention football is topical right now? Are you asserting female students are inherently incapable of understanding the analogy I was making or that they are generally unaware of what is involved in team sports?

3) Too bad.
All things being equal, the students who put in the out of class effort, actively like and pursue a subject and network effectively will do better in the class.
Some students can do multiple subjects and do well, most can't. I am fine with students making minimal efforts in some classes and doing just enough to get by, but then they can't expect to excel, or complain if they do less well than they'd like.

5) Most universities have academic scholarships, and excelling in physical science is one of the better ways to get such scholarships. More would be better. I agree.

6) As opposed to the century of quantitative study since Ebbinghaus showed linear correlation between time spent on learning and retention?
Studying student effort is hard because of small heterogenous sample sizes, lousy stats, and misreporting by subjects. There are some good proxy studies now, like this one… which won the Arrow Prize, showing grades decrease and whether your roommate has a video game.
I do, btw tell my students that TV watching and video game playing will hurt their grades. They mostly don't believe me.

I'm an undergrad engineering major, my junior year starts up today. This semester I'll be taking 15 credits, every single one of the engineering-related; I also tutor for some of the 200/300 level classes I've already taken. So I think it's fairly safe to say that I'm Living the Subject right now. Moreover, I'm not exceptional in this--for a technical major, this is how it is, and this is how it should be. Nobody's 'out of touch' for suggesting that freshmen take education into their own hands.

For technical fields that often intersect with public safety, the Well Rounded College Experience can afford to take a backseat.

1) I know. I couldn't get to the library downtown. Anyway if it's shallow to say child molestation is wrong, and no amount of football can change that, I'll stick with shallow.
2) Can some woman somewhere relate to the football analogy? Sure. Can most understand it? Of course.
However, I'm asserting that when male profs in male-dominated fields try to sound "topical" and relate to students, they may be more likely to pick male-dominated topics such as football, and that football in particular is going to disgust some female students. Are you familiar with stereotype threat at all? Honestly, my suggestion aside, you should probably avoid using the analogy with any activity that is highly gendered to avoid priming effects. What's wrong with being a concert pianist?
3) Fair enough, as long as you don't take it personally when they tell you they hate physics.
5) Which of your students have scholarships that provide as much as the football players?
6) Wait, did you really just cite a study done at Berea and say you tell your students it generalizes to them? Do you even know what that place is (I think it's awesome, for the record, but about as far from PSU as anything can be)?
*facepalm* maybe you just shouldn't be teaching science.

Anyway. When I was an undergrad studying physics at UIUC, this is what they did. They asked students about *everything*. When they studied, who they studied with, how they did it. For that cohort, they determined what parts of the course were most useful for performance (for the record: doing the pre-flights was the biggest bang for the buck. I suspect students need to struggle with the material and *then* deal with a professor for stuff to sink in, as a general rule).

Joe- I probably would have said the same thing about my major as an undergrad. But with all due respect, it's really not the same as getting a PhD. Some professors who teach grad students expect that level of "living the subject" from freshmen, and that is out of touch. I don't know whether that applies here, but I do know it did to some profs I had who offered similarly "topical" lectures/rants.


1) Are you familiar with the phrase "non sequitor".
Anyway, thank you for illustrating my point.
You did not actually say child molestation was wrong.
In fact there was no mention of child molestation anywhere in this post or comments until your last response.

2) I am perfectly certain that a football metaphor disgusts some male students. But then I am not trying to please every one in a single post.
Honestly, there is nothing wrong with being a concert pianist, but I am not going to limit my comments to gender neutral discussion at any one particular time.
Again, I invited you to write a metaphor explaining how learning to be a concert pianist relates to physics.

3) I expect that for any major and any pedagogical approach there will be students who hate the subject - this is particularly the case in the US system where high school preparation leaves students with little knowledge of what is involved in doing STEM majors in particular.
If the students had more reasonable expectations of what is involved in some academic subjects, then they might hate it less.

4) There is no #4

5) The College of Science offers approximately 100 internal academic merit scholarships per year; these offer $8,000 per year for some, $2,000 for others. In addition the Honours College offers $4,000 scholarships. So an academically strong student coming into physics may expect $12,000 per year in merit scholarships.
This is less than a full ride, in no small part because the value of the scholarships have not kept pace with the rise in tuition costs. These are also not the only scholarships available.
Athletics, across all sports, offers 80-100 scholarships per year, at any given time there about 400 scholarships athletes in all sports across the university, of which 85, currently, are in football.
Athletic scholarships come in in different categories, endowed scholarships pay about $15,000 per year while named scholarships pay about $2,500 per year. Full ride athletic scholarships are rarer than people think.

BTW there were 325 Paterno fellows at Penn State in 2012, all in Liberal Arts. It is a partial merit based scholarship.

6) Maybe I shouldn't be teaching science, but yet here I am.
I look forward to hearing about your extensive experience doing so.
The Berea study, btw, is interesting, despite its small sample size and possible self-reporting bias, because it should control relatively well for many confounders. The conclusions, to the extent they are to be believed, are consistent and ought to apply broadly.

Anyway, the UIUC intro physics structure requires students to read about the material and engage with it before lecture, to go to lecture, to do homework, to do labs, and participate in discussion.
It formally provides a structure for pretty much what I said physics students should be doing on their own initiative.
Funny that.