Increasing the Relevancy of Physics to Students
The abstract nature of many physics concepts creates considerable learning difficulty for most students. To master the concepts in Physics 30 students have to expend considerable effort in constructing new knowledge, reconstructing their currently-held knowledge, and making connections between the two. This research showed that students consistently had considerable difficulty making such connections on their own. Because of students’ inability to make cognitive connections instructional strategies need to be designed with the aim of assisting students in connecting newly acquired concepts to their currently-held knowledge.
Without students achieving understanding of physics principles and concepts there is little rationale for students taking grade 12 physics. For most students little ******* appears to be remembered for more than a few weeks or, at most, a few months. Having students understand a few principles deeply and seeing connections to their life experiences is a more sound pedagogical position than covering a large amount of ******* but knowing that the students will remember little in the future and will be unable to apply these principles anywhere but in the physics classroom. Secondary school physics teachers should shift the focus of instruction away from covering the curriculum to helping students develop a more complete understanding of a few concepts and an ability to apply them to phenomena in their lives outside the classroom. The current emphasis on moving through a series of concepts without assuring understanding should no longer be acceptable teaching practice. To some extent all secondary school science classes suffer from the same concern and all could benefit from a similar shift in emphasis.
When mathematical formulas are introduced early in classroom experiences, the participants treated formulas as algebraic problems and lost sight of the physics concepts. Evidence of this weakness was displayed when the three students discussing the momentum exam indicated they never thought about the answers once the calculations were complete. They showed no indication of understanding the principles underlying the problem, rather they simply followed an algorithm to arrive at a solution.
When introducing a new concept instruction should first explore students’ current understanding of the concept and then identify the concepts in natural phenomena in a qualitative manner. Much less emphasis should be placed on mathematical formulas than has traditionally been done. Experiences should be provided for students to assist them in identifying a concept in nature and determining other concepts that are related to it in cause-and-effect relationships. For example, when exploring acceleration
students could initially examine their own conceptions of acceleration acquired during their lives, especially their experience driving cars. By first examining their own conceptions students would become more aware of their current understanding of acceleration. Classroom experiences would then be created to demonstrate the limitations and inconsistencies of their conception and to guide them to reconstructing their conception to resolve their dilemma. Helping students identify situations where their knowledge fails to produce understanding may create an impetus for restructuring their conceptions to match more closely those of the physics community.
After students had a sense of their own conception and had compared it with the scientific view of the same conception, they would explore variables which cause changes in the concept; in the case of acceleration, mass
. This initial exploration of cause and effect relationships would be qualitative in nature rather than using mathematical representations. Students would gain through experience and discussion an understanding that acceleration increases as force increases, and decreases as mass increases. When students understood the qualitative relationship between the concepts, they would determine a means of representing the qualitative relationship using mathematics. A possible vehicle for this stage could be laboratory problems which require numerical accuracy for satisfactory solution. If used at all, physics formulae would be the end point of concept development rather than the starting point. The traditional use of formulae in secondary school physics could be eliminated altogether because this research strongly indicates formulae act as part of an algorithm and can be manipulated correctly without understanding the relationships represented.
The ideas expressed here require field development in classrooms and would evolve with teacher and student experience. Students would have to learn to operate within this approach to instruction. If these strategies were introduced in earlier grade levels, then, by Physics 30, students may have learned to view learning in physics as concept development rather than memorization of facts.
On different occasions in the research, students demonstrated their inability to recognize reasonable answers to problems. This lack can be interpreted as a manifestation of students not understanding relationships between concepts in a qualitative manner. To estimate answers to problems students need to understand the fundamental relationships between variables before they can decide if an answer is reasonable. Estimation skills need not be developed in physics alone, rather they should be part of instruction throughout secondary mathematics and science courses, as well as, elementary math and science courses.
Discussions and professional development between science and mathematics teachers could produce results if they focussed on interrelating topics common to both curricula. Potential benefits exist for both subject areas. First, students could identify explicit connections between subject matter in the two areas. These connections would make some mathematics concepts more relevant by providing practical applications for seemingly abstract principles. Second, such discussions could benefit both mathematics teachers and physics teachers because they could compare instructional approaches and refer directly to each others’ subject in their own classes. They would develop an understanding of how various topics had been taught and which concepts were most important in each others’ classes. Lastly, they could discuss instructional problems, and perhaps provide mutual support for each others’ teaching.
Some topics identified by this research which would benefit from mutual discussion include direction conventions for vectors, vector components and problem-solving applications of mathematics. If direction conventions and vector components were used in the same manner in both subject areas, then students would not have to perform the mental gymnastics currently necessary to apply concepts from one subject area in another. To some extent problem solving skills might carry over from one class to another benefiting both students and teachers.
At a more radical level a different option for curricula development could be explored. The barriers existing between subject areas are artificially created and are present for convenience rather than out of necessity. Consideration should be given to eliminating the barriers created by subject areas. Science and mathematics could be taught as a single subject. Other barriers are no less artificial. Science subject areas such as, biology, chemistry and physics could be removed leaving an integrated study of science and mathematics. I have little doubt that such a radical change would not be readily accepted by many teachers and administrators but some radical change is obviously needed if we are striving for meaningful learning in science students. Table of *******s Implications and Recommendations for Instructional Strategies
The choice of instructional strategy depends on a number of factors, including teacher preferences, the concept or principle being developed, classroom facilities, available resources and the group of students being taught. Although not designed to compare instructional strategies, this research showed that some choices facilitate student learning better than others. While no single instructional strategy should be considered as a panacea for learning difficulties, the small group instruction used in the study appeared to have several advantages.
The participants unanimously agreed that this type of small group instruction was beneficial to their learning. Among reasons stated were that the small group provided an atmosphere where they were less concerned about personal embarrassment, and each felt that he or she had sufficient opportunity to express his or her opinions and concerns. They were more active in the discussions, and were generally more attentive to class activities. I have tried to create a similar non-threatening environment in my regular classes but in a large classroom with twenty-five to thirty students, it is much more difficult to allow all persons as much time as they would have in a small group to contribute their ideas to general discussions. In particular girls have been shown to benefit from small groups and less competitive classroom environments than occur in most regular science classrooms; however, I have no doubt that all participants appreciated working in our smaller group. I do think that the girls and some boys would have been at more of a disadvantage in a larger classroom. Table of *******s Using Discussion as an Instructional Strategy
Throughout the project much of the instruction was orchestrated through student-teacher and student-student discussions. Although this strategy appeared to be quite time consuming, several objectives was accomplished during these interactions. First, conversations with students assisted me in developing a mental model or image of how each student was constructing his or her knowledge of physics concepts. These models provided a background against which to formulate individualized responses for each student’s inquiries. Identically worded questions from two students could require different responses if the image of their concept development was different. Second, students benefited by listening to and taking part in these interactions, because they were able to experience part of each others’ struggle to learn. Stronger students were frequently perceived to be naturally talented in physics leading others to believe that a strong student did not have to work through his or her own confusion to achieve understanding. Classroom discussions helped to make frequent mental struggle seem to be a natural part of learning. Third, everyone heard all student questions and inquiries, and was involved in the resolution of each. Student-student dialogue contributed to individual learning because similar conceptual difficulties were experienced by more than one student. At times a participant who had already worked through some difficulty in learning was able to identify the source of anothers confusion and help to dissolve it.
The apparent time-consuming nature of participant discussions may be perceived as a disadvantage. Considerable care had to be exercised to ensure that each student had an opportunity to make his or her contribution to each discussion. On occasions when progress was agonizingly slow, I was tempted to answer questions and relieve concerns by providing “correct” answers. In spite of pressure to complete the curriculum I resisted the temptation as much as possible because on most occasions transmitting correct answers did not produce the meaningful learning for which I was aiming. For classroom discussions to be successful extended time was required because students needed to reflect at length about the issue being discussed. They had to reconstruct their knowledge and this process could not be rushed. While I was able to catalyze their restructuring process by providing experiences to help them to understand, each student had to perform the restructuring individually. Table of *******s Questioning and Discussion Skills - Learned Processes
The research record showed that most students took some time to develop the skills necessary to become fully involved in classroom discussions. They had to gain experience with my style of questioning and interactive discussion. Tran******s from the earlier classes showed that the participants were initially quite passive and that they did not expect to participate so actively in their own learning. They needed time and experience to gain a sense of the value of being personally involved before they readily contributed to the discussions. Initially, wait times were long and student responses were very brief. I had to exercise considerable patience while waiting for answers and refrain from answering questions or moving on to other students to reduce tension. Only when the participants realized that I was not going to provide answers directly did they change their approach to this style of interactive instruction. During the first few days students were not at ease, and neither was I. They were not used to having so much responsibility for their own learning. Table of *******s Implications for Students Learning
Students are responsible for their own learning and must expend intellectual effort to engage learning activities (Driver & Bell, 1986; Osborne & Wittrock, 1985). Novak (1985) agreed the responsibility for learning can not be shared and must be consciously pursued by students. This view that students are responsible for their own learning seems easily defended, yet the experience in the first week or two of the study with the participants strongly indicated they were used to passively receiving knowledge from books and teachers, and that they had assumed almost no responsibility for their own learning.
When asked to describe how they learned about physics concepts or solved problems the participants struggled to explain what they were doing or thinking. They had not thought to any extent about how they learned nor their own place in the process. This situation was not changed as much as hoped during the study because they did not have sufficient time to learn thinking strategies or develop an understanding of learning, especially considering the lack of such focus over their past twelve years of formal education.
****cognitive processes can be as simple as awareness of techniques that assist memory, or as complex as the awareness of one’s knowledge and modifying its structure or ******* (Gagné, Yekovich & Yekovich, 1993). Several science education researchers have argued that ****cognitive strategies should be taught to students so they realize that they change and construct concepts in their minds (Duit,1991; Gunstone, 1988; Gunstone & Watts, 1985; Roth, 1995). Students need to understand and control their memory to increase their success at learning complex concepts in science. This research supports the position that students would benefit from understanding more about how they learn and how ****cognitive strategies can help them reconstruct their physics concepts.
These strategies require time to develop and should be introduced early in their education. Students need to learn that they are actively learning and that teachers can not transmit knowledge to them directly. Each student constructs the concepts individually in the social environment of the classroom. Teachers can assist through their instruction in concept development by providing relevant experiences for students; however, each student is fundamentally responsible for his or her own knowledge construction. Students need to know as early as possible that they are responsible for what they learn. The appropriate grade level where introduction of ****cognitive strategies should be made is an area for further research, but it is likely students could be successfully introduced to such strategies and begin to take responsibility for their learning at a much earlier age than secondary school. Table of *******s Bibliography
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