Science BadLearningHabits YIR copy

It’s time to break bad learning habits due to the pandemic

During the early years of the pandemic, everyone in education had to adapt and most of our business was not conducted in the ideal environment. At my school, we started by moving all classes online using Google Meet. (It wasn’t much fun.) This was supplemented with short lecture videos. (I actually enjoyed making them.) Next, we implemented a hybrid model where some students would be in class and others would be online. (This was terrible.)

While distance learning can have some benefits, as a teacher I have noticed that we have all picked up some bad habits over the past couple of years. Have you noticed that after a vacation, when you’ve sat and watched too many football matches while eating more than normal, you may not be at your normal fitness level? Well, the same thing can happen with learning.

With exercise you know that after the holidays you need to hit the gym or go out to get in shape and feel ready to take on the world. With the learning, I think it’s more about figuring out how to constructively use the technologies that have helped us go remote instead of relying on them as a crutch.

Smartphones

It can be shocking to realize how much power we always carry with us. Not only is your phone a very powerful computer, but it also has a decent camera and a host of other sensors.

And smartphones often belong in school: you can use your own phone to collect and analyze data. For an experiment, students can use the accelerometers in your phone to measure the distance an elevator travels. Or how about using a long exposure photo for measure the speed of the International Space Station? You can even solve physics problems creating Python code right on your phoneor use built-ins lidar to create 3D room maps.

In larger lecture-style classes, as a first step in class discussions, I have students use their phones to vote on their answers to concept questions. (One of my favorites involves the acceleration of a pitched ball at its peak. A common answer is that since the velocity is zero, the acceleration is also zero, but that’s not true. In fact, if the acceleration were zero at the highest point where velocity is also zero, the ball would magically appear to be stationary.)

However, there is one way students use their phones in class that I think isn’t always a good idea: they take pictures of Everything. (Admittedly, this has been going on for a while, so it’s not purely pandemic related.) Now, don’t get me wrong, I also take a lot of pictures. Photos aren’t just a great way to capture memories of your favorite dog; they can also serve as a reminder of things we need to do, like taking a picture of the shopping list. So what’s the matter with students taking a class photo of a physics solution or derivation of an equation?

I’ll give a real life example. It’s my introductory physics class and I’m tackling a practical problem. I find it helpful to model effective problem solving strategies so students can see the entire process. Naturally, students have the opportunity to ask questions as I demonstrate the solution and I stop several times to allow them to try each part before proceeding. Once we get to the end, the problem is solved and at least part of the solution is written on the blackboard. (Sometimes things get wiped.) Before you know it, some phones are out. Hurry!

Why is it so bad? I think it encourages students to think of physics problems as if they were like the game Pokémon Go, where the goal is to capture as many solutions as possible. But it’s not: the process is important, not the solution.

I don’t mind if the student is just taking a picture to help them remember the result, with the intention of going back and working through it all on their own. Not a bad idea. However, I’m just afraid that too often a student feels that the solution and the target. Having the answer is not the same as understanding.

Or take the example of students starting to work on a problem in pairs using presentation boards set up around the room. After working for five minutes, each student will move on to a new board with a new student to work for another five minutes. This goes for three or four rounds until most couples have no solutions. (I got this idea from a fellow physics teacher; his name is Whiteboard speed dating.)

Sometimes these speed dating problems are a little difficult. Students can find it difficult to even get started. They’re afraid to put something on the board that might be wrong, because nobody wants to get it wrong. Wouldn’t it be better not to write anything and wait? I mean surely Dr. Allain (that’s me) will eventually look into the solution and then boom, phone picture!

When this happens, I tell the class the following very important idea: “It is better to do something wrong than to see something right.”

These mistakes are part of the learning process. You can’t expect to always do everything right when you’re learning. It would be like going to basketball practice but not taking any shots because you’re afraid of making a mistake. Yes you I am will miss. Missing a goal is how you improve your shots. The same goes for physics or any kind of learning.

In the end, I let my students take pictures, because there’s a chance they can actually use the pictures in a practical way. Also, banning phones would mean I couldn’t have any phone-based classroom activity, and it could send the wrong message that I have all the answers, and that students have to earn those answers through hard work. Instead, the answers are just the tip of the iceberg.

But if you’re a student heading back to school in January and your teacher allows phones in class, my advice would be to take pictures if you need to save anything from the whiteboard. But don’t stop there. Strive to go back and fix any problems or solutions from those images. See the photo as the beginning of the learning process, not the end.

Answers online

There is another place where students’ focus on answers, rather than the learning process, is clearly visible: websites that provide solutions to physics problems. During the pandemic, students have taken advantage of this more often, because more assessments have been moved to an online form, which makes it easier to cheat. And as these sites are becoming more popular, there are now more of them. This makes me sad. The problem is that students may just copy a solution without understanding it, and it’s all too obvious that many times this is exactly what happens.

Consider the following very common projectile motion problem covered in nearly every physics textbook: A ball is thrown horizontally from a table that is 4 feet off the floor and hits 5 feet from its starting point. What is the speed of throwing the ball?

The problem is usually solved by looking at the horizontal and vertical movements separately. (This is the interesting part of the bullet motion.) Most textbooks call horizontal velocity vx and vertical velocity vy. So when a student comes up with a solution using u for the horizontal velocity and u’ (called u-prime) for the vertical velocity, it looks just weird. Why would they choose those symbols for the variables? You know why: They found the answer online.

You might think that if instructors assigned unique physics problems, students would actually create their own solutions. Does not work. I can do something weird (and honestly quite funny) for a physics question, but students post it online within hours. It would be really funny if it wasn’t so bad for learning. And even worse, someone is making a lot of money from these online solutions, which often require a subscription to their services.

If you’re a student who is tempted to use online answers, I urge you to use them only to solve part of a problem you’re stuck on or to double-check that you understand the problem correctly.

Attend class

There’s one other thing students have a problem with lately: going to class.

Online learning isn’t all bad; in fact, for some students, it offers opportunities that weren’t there before. Videos can help students keep up with the lesson, well, if they actually watch them, and provide an opportunity to review material that may have been a little confusing. Going remotely gives students some flexibility to compensate for things that happen in real life, like catching the flu or having a flat tire. Life happens and it would be a shame to miss school. And it can be an advantage in Louisiana: when we have to cancel class due to a hurricane (yes, it happens), we won’t waste much class time since we can simply switch to an online mode.

But there’s something about in-person classes that I’ve found hard to replicate in an online setting. I like to think of a physics class as a community of students. Students can play the role of educator and student at the same time when interacting with their peers. (And don’t forget the other student in the course: the instructor. Even teaching an introductory physics class, I still find new understanding every time I teach it, which is why I love it so much.)

If you’re a teacher, there’s a lot more you can do in class than just lecturing. You can have students work on problems or, even better, have them find the flaw in a solution to a problem. You might have him create problems that other students could solve. Honestly, the possibilities are endless. If you’re looking for more ideas (at least in physics), check out the American Association of Physics Teachers resource site: Compar.org.

If you are a student, try to attend class as much as possible. Don’t think of it as if you’re in a movie theater watching a bunch of answers. Instead, use that time to engage in all learning opportunities.

In the end, the goal is to practice, not do everything right. When it comes time to work on homework, let yourself get stuck. Fix the problem to the point where you don’t know what to do anymore. Getting stuck is the first step to unlocking, right? After all, if you don’t have a problem with a physics problem, then either you already figured it out or it wasn’t that much of a problem to begin with.