My Experiments with PER

What physics teacher doesn’t like a good experiment? Over the past few semesters my classroom has become one elaborate trial in an experiment to determine whether there is a better way to teach grade 12 physics. My attempt has been a new physics course built around concept-focused group activities with an almost complete elimination of the traditional lecture.
Chris Meyer
Around seven years ago I became acquainted with the body of pedagogical work called Physics Education Research (PER) after attending a presentation by Edward F. (“Joe”) Redish, one of PER’s leading lights. I discovered a whole new world of strategies and techniques that I began to incorporate into my class. Despite many small successes with these techniques, in general things didn’t work out. My application of the techniques was inconsistent and my expectations of students were continually changing and sometimes unclear. Students never had a chance to ‘get the hang’ of things. I decided it was time for a radical change that brought everything together into a cohesive framework for the entire course.

The inspiration for the transformation of my course comes from a variety of sources, but primarily from the Workshop Physics program developed by Priscilla Laws at Dickenson College. She and a number of other pedagogical leaders have established an extensive body of research. Setting this work apart from other pedagogical studies is the natural impulse of physicists to quantify their research. They tested new teaching techniques against a variety of standardized and widely used assessment tools, the most well known being the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). The results of this work point strongly to three conclusions:

  • Lecturing, even with new pedagogical supports, is a relatively ineffective way to teach physics;
  • Students benefit greatly by focusing on concepts and working in small groups; and
  • Quality beats quantity. Teachers should aim to cover less material, but in greater depth.

From Inspiration to Implementation

The next challenge was to figure out how to implement such a program in my classroom. While my source of inspiration was the Workshop Physics program, there was no single resource or pre-made map that was directly applicable to my situation. Most of the PER resources have been developed in the United States for the college or university levels. Many resources had to be adapted for the Ontario curriculum, to eliminate the use of calculus, to work around differences in equipment and to meet the needs of my particular school and students.

The best way to explain the workings of my course is to describe how students approach a new concept. They go through a process of group activity, text readings, homework problems, and finally group problem solving. The group activity is the typical starting point. The emphasis is, as much as possible, on concrete investigation. This offers students direct experience with the physics at hand, which helps them to make sense of the emerging concepts. They study the patterns, offer explanations and draw simple conclusions that lead them towards the mature ideas. Interspersed with class discussions, these activities take up the full class time.

One example is an activity introducing pulleys. Students begin my measuring the force of tension with a variety of pulley configurations and draw conclusions about tension in a string and how pulleys affect it. Then they apply those conclusions to an exploration of an Atwood machine. For homework, a reading is assigned which helps them relate what they observed in class with the framework of physical laws and the mathematical formalism found in the text. This is followed up with a small set of practice problems. Questions are generally chosen to require students to further unravel the concept and are less frequently of a ‘plug and chug’ variety.

Finally, students participate in a group problem solving session that sums up the ideas of a number of classes. Here they work on a context-rich challenge typically involving the physical measurement of an apparatus, planning and solving a problem on paper, and then verifying the results using the apparatus – seeing if their theoretical prediction holds up. Lecture time in class has been pared down to the bare essentials necessary to start off an activity, to the summary of the day’s work, to the clarification of a textbook reading, or to the outline of a problem-solving tip. This seldom consumes more than ten minutes per class.

My students’ experiences have changed considerably from mostly listening and repeating to continuous investigation, discussion and explanation. They are wrestling with physics ideas for a good 60 minutes per class – especially on the group problem solving days when they really sweat! The transition to this new classroom ‘culture’ can be challenging for student, may of whom might be quite comfortable and “successful” with the traditional ways and are not used to the demands of my new regime. I spend a good amount of time at the start of the course explaining how group structure, dynamics, and roles work and how to avoid typical problems. I teach them the learning skills that are necessary for success in an environment of greatly increased student responsibility. Doing this reduces the number of students who may feel lost, resentful or under-served by their teacher in this new format.

My experiment with PER is ongoing and hasn’t yet reached the quantification stage. At the moment, I judge its success mostly by my observations and feelings. A few positive outcomes seem quite clear, however:

  • Student engagement in class is much improved. This may be due to the appeal of working in a social environment with their peers, and to the many ‘hands-on’ activities, all of which may appeal to a wider range of learning styles. Supply teachers consistently note an unexpectedly high degree of diligence.
  • Students are constantly using their own words to describe physics verbally and in writing, greatly improving their physics literacy.
  • Traditional student problem solving skills remain very high, even though I rarely model a problem solution in class.
  • Course enrolment is very stable this past semester – the attrition has been less than 10% amongst 89 students.

I have found this change in teaching quite a gratifying development for me and I heartily encourage others along this path. I am currently working with the OAPT to make my complete set of resources for the grade 12 course available online. Perhaps the best way to start your own experiments would be trying out a few of these resources. Then maybe you will take the plunge and say farewell to lectures and the old way of teaching!
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