MAR 15, 2016 10:19 AM PDT

To better teach physics, let students decide

Encouraging students to repeatedly make decisions about data collected during introductory lab courses improves their critical thinking skills, report physicists.
 
"This is sort of a radical way to think about teaching, having students practice the thinking skills you want them to develop, but in another way it's obvious common sense," says Carl Wieman.

Introductory labs are often seen as primarily “cookbook” exercises in which students simply follow instructions to confirm results given in their textbooks, while learning little.

In a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists show that guiding students to autonomous, iterative decision-making while carrying out common physics lab course experiments can significantly improve students’ critical thinking skills.
 

Pendulum experiments


In the multi-year, ongoing study, the researchers followed first-year students in coauthor Douglas Bonn’s introductory physics lab course at the University of British Columbia. They first established what students were, and were not, learning following the conventional instructional approach, and then systematically modified the instructions of some lab experiments to change how students think about data and their implications.

One of the first experiments the researchers tackled involved swinging a pendulum and using a stopwatch to time the period between two angles of amplitude. Students conducting the traditional experiment would collect the data, compare them to the equation in the textbook, chalk up any discrepancies to mistakes, and move along.

In the modified course, the students were instructed to make decisions based on the comparison. First, what should they do to improve the quality of their data, and then, how could they better test or explain the comparison between data and the textbook result? These are basic steps in all scientific research.

Students chose improvements such as conducting more trials to reduce standard error, marking the floor to be more precise in measuring the angle, or simply putting the team member with the best trigger finger in charge of the stopwatch.

As their data improved, so did their understanding of the processes at work, as well as their confidence in their information and its ability to test predicted results.
 

Decisions and data


“By actually taking good data, they can reveal that there’s this approximation in the equation that they learn in the textbook, and they learn new physics by this process,” says Natasha Holmes, the lead author of the study, who began the research as a doctoral candidate at UBC and is building upon it as a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University.

“By iterating, making changes, and learning about experimental design in a more deliberate way, they come out with a richer experience.”

Researchers found that students taking an iterative decision-making approach to the experiment were 12 times more likely to think of and employ ways to improve their data than the students with the traditional instruction. Similarly, the experimental group was four times more likely to identify and explain the limits of their predictive model based on their data.

Even more encouraging, these students were still applying these same critical thinking skills a year later in another physics course.
 

Dealing with uncertainty


“This is sort of a radical way to think about teaching, having students practice the thinking skills you want them to develop, but in another way it’s obvious common sense,” says coauthor Carl Wieman, a professor of physics and of education at Stanford. “Natasha has shown here how powerful that approach can be.”

The ability to make decisions based on data is becoming increasingly important in public policy decisions, Wieman says, and understanding that any real data have a degree of uncertainty, and knowing how to arrive at meaningful conclusions in the face of that uncertainty, is essential. The iterative teaching method better prepares students for that reality.

“Students leave this class with fundamentally different ideas about interpretation of data and testing against model predictions, whether it’s about climate change or vaccine safety or swinging pendulums,” Wieman says.

Holmes is expanding her research by applying these lessons to a range of undergraduate courses at different levels and subjects.

If iterative design can get first-year students to employ expert-like behaviors, the gains could be greater in advanced courses, she says. When students embark on an independent project, for instance, they’ll be much better prepared to face and clear any hurdles.

“Students tell me that it helped them learn what it means to do science, and helped to see themselves as scientists and critical thinkers,” Holmes says. “I think it’s done a whole lot for their motivation and attitudes and beliefs about what they’re capable of. So at least from that perspective, I think experiment design that encourages iterative thinking will have huge benefits for students in the long run.”

Source: Stanford University

This article was originally published on futurity.org.
About the Author
  • Futurity features the latest discoveries by scientists at top research universities in the US, UK, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The nonprofit site, which launched in 2009, is supported solely by its university partners (listed below) in an effort to share research news directly with the public.
You May Also Like
AUG 18, 2020
Microbiology
The Science of Pesto
AUG 18, 2020
The Science of Pesto
  The word pesto comes from the Genovese word pestâ (pestare in Italian) which means “to pound” o ...
AUG 27, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Pheromone Molecule at the Center of Global Locusts Crisis
AUG 27, 2020
Pheromone Molecule at the Center of Global Locusts Crisis
Since earlier this year, agriculture and food production in the developing world have been taking heavy damages from an ...
SEP 11, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Indigenous fermentation processes require complex chemical reactions
SEP 11, 2020
Indigenous fermentation processes require complex chemical reactions
A study published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports uncovers the complex chemical processes behind aborigina ...
OCT 02, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
A New Way of Building Houses: 3-D Printing with Clay
OCT 02, 2020
A New Way of Building Houses: 3-D Printing with Clay
Our ancestors had a long history of building dwelling structures using clay and plant-based fibrous materials. Even thes ...
NOV 02, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Eliminating CO2 at room temperature
NOV 02, 2020
Eliminating CO2 at room temperature
A new chemical process developed by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) demonstrate ...
NOV 25, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
The physics behind the face mask
NOV 25, 2020
The physics behind the face mask
A study published in Physics of Fluids investigates the physics of face masks to better comprehend how we can effectivel ...
Loading Comments...