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Affective Physics

Roberta Tevlin, OAPT Newsletter Editor, Teacher Danforth CTI
Edited by Tim Langford

The theme of the 2017 OAPT conference is Affective Physics. This theme signals our recognition that physics teachers need to pay more attention to the emotional domain of learning. There is a growing realization that feelings have a huge influence on student motivation, engagement, deep learning and choice of study. It may also be a key to influencing more women to choose STEM.

Why do you need to consider the affective domain?
As a committed professional, you have already made sure that your physics content is strong and that you have crafted well-scaffolded lessons with lots of opportunities for student-centered learning. Is this enough?

McConnell and van Der Hoeven examined the question. “Decades of research on science education have provided us with a variety of tools to deal with our students’ conceptual understanding … But there has been less focus on student affect: the feelings, attitudes, emotions, and values that shape learning and behaviour. … our students may feel disconnected from the nature we strive so hard to define for them and they often struggle to see the relevance of the content to their lives. Greater attention paid to the affective domain provides an opportunity to strike a balance between the content of science and the motivation necessary to support the learning of the content. An increased awareness for the role of the affective domain may provide opportunities to both improve student learning and boost recruitment of majors.” [1]

Affect in the Classroom: How do your students feel in your physics classroom?
There are many simple organizational techniques that can improve the socio-emotional atmosphere in your classroom. What can you do to ensure that everyone has a chance to be fully involved and feels welcome? Here are some ideas that I have learned during my involvement with the OAPT.

Dave Doucette introduced me to tent cards. When students enter the classroom they look for the tent card with their name on it and sit there. This simple technique ensures that students do not have to sit with the same people all year as set out in a seating plan nor do they have worry about whether any one wants them at their table.


How should you organize the groups? Heller and Hollabaugh’s study of small group problem solving in a university setting found that that the greatest learning occurs in groups of three students with mixed abilities. Ideas from female students were often ignored by the males and they suggest having a second female in the group. [2]

Small group discussions can easily be dominated by one person. To prevent this, you need to make sure that all of the students have a chance to read the question and think about their own answer before any discussion starts. For short Peer Instruction discussions, Glenn Wagner has them speak according to the length of their hair, varying whether the longest hair speaks first or last. Other techniques involve giving a specific role to each group member, such as recorder or sceptic.

Tests and exams are perhaps the greatest source of stress for students and Chris Meyer has been exploring ways to reduce this by having collaborative exams.

Affect in the Content: How do your students feel about the discipline of physics?
Some people find physics intrinsically fascinating and beautiful. I am one of them. However, this will not be true for most of our students. How can we change this? We need to provide them with examples that connect physics with other disciplines and interests. One way to do this is to provide them with choice, so that they can make connections between physics and the things that they already value. At the end of each unit, I have the students choose an assignment from a list of possibilities or they can suggest one of their own. For example, in the light unit they can compare the career paths of optometrists and opticians (medical), take photographs illustrating how polarizing filters can improve images (art), compare how Keats and Feynman feel about science explaining rainbows (poetry), make a computer simulation to show how multiple polarizing filters work (programming), discuss why Rosalind Franklin did not get a Nobel Prize (history) or measure the thickness of a human hair (experiment). I have provided five files listing the possibilities for five units. Each year the number of options on the list grows larger as my students suggest new ideas.

I teach a two-year interdisciplinary course called Engineering Design. I have started incorporating more aesthetic and people-centred aspects to the projects. For example, in one unit the students build roller coasters. These used to be scored on strictly quantitative and objective grounds, such as the number of loops and the duration of the ride. I now include marks for a theme, the quality of construction, the ‘choreography’ of the ride etc. How do you mark work that is so subjective and qualitative? I have the students discuss and score the coasters in groups of three. The rankings of the coasters are remarkably consistent. They may not know art, but they know what they like. The results have been fantastic. Here is a video of this year’s winning coaster.

After building the model roller coasters, the students have to design one for people using equations. I have recently added a second component which goes beyond the math. I point out that most people over the age of fifty do not ride roller coasters. The students need to do research to determine why not and then come up with a plan to make their coaster more attractive to this group. This project connects physics with a purpose and people’s needs. Here is a file of the sheet students are given describing the project.

Making connections between physics and other disciplines may have an especially strong effect on female students and their attitudes towards physics. Su and Rong found that women tend to be more interested in working with people and men are more interested in working with things. [3] We need to make it clear to our students that doing physics and engineering involves working with people and that this work can improve people’s lives. We should help students see how physics connects with biology, architecture, sports and a host of other spheres that are important to their lives. Doing so will boost the value of physics in their eyes.

Editor’s note: We would love to hear from other teachers about how they are dealing with the affective domain in their classrooms.

  1. (McConnel, David A. and van Der Hoeven Kraft, Katrien2011, Affective Domain and Student Learning in the Geosciences, Journal of Geoscience Education v. 59, p. 106-110)
  2. (Heller, Patricia and Hollabaugh, Mark, 1992, Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups, American Journal of Physics, v. 60, No. 7, July)
  3. (Su, Rong and Rounds, James, All STEM fields are not created equal: People and things interests explain gender disparities across STEM fields. (2015), Frontiers in Psychology, 2015 v. 6, p. 189)
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