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Quick Guide for Teaching Physics: The Introductory Lessons

Chris Meyer, President, Ontario Association of Physics Teachers; Hybrid Teacher-Coach for Science, Toronto District School Board

Hello everyone and welcome to the first installment of my quick guide for teaching physics! In this series, I will share with you my tips and strategies for teaching each major unit of the grade 11 and 12 physics courses. The ideas I share come from my 20+ years of teaching high school physics and mounds of physics education research. In addition to quick explanations of what to do and why, I will provide links to help you learn more or access resources.

Part One: The Introduction to a Physics Course (3-4 classes)
First impressions count, so make yours a good one. The introductory lessons of a physics course should sell students on the physics learning experience, acquaint students with their learning environment, and provide them with practice meeting your learning expectations, all before any significant content is introduced.

Get them doing physics right away
It’s the first day of class and what should a physics teacher do? Let’s recast that question: what should a physics student do? Why physics, of course! Find an engaging activity to get them going on day one. I use a ball drop experiment or do some improvisation activities. This creates a positive first impression of physics in general and helps break the notion that physics is just another math class (it’s not). This is also a kind of sales pitch: students should leave your first class having had a great experience and wanting more!

Don’t bore them with class administration
Put up your hand if you like staff meetings when your admin goes on and on about this or that procedure when you could be doing something much more productive. Anyone? Well, students don’t enjoy it either! Be ruthlessly efficient when doing course administration in class time: this time is for your students’ learning. Things that seem especially important to you are, surprisingly, not for most students. Do the bare minimum collectively with the full attention of the class and then the rest once students are engaged in a physics task (see tip 1).

Use a seating plan, learn their names fast
You create the learning environment for your students and their location in it is important. I create a seating plan for day 1 that assigns students to groups of three. The assignment is pretty much random; I only avoid initial groupings of male, male, female. Learn students’ names quickly: challenge yourself to have most of them memorized after the first class - this is an important part of your job. I make a game of it: while my students are performing their first task (see tip 1), I walk up and down and quiz myself out loud on students’ names. I change the seating randomly every class for about a week, so students get to meet more of their colleagues. Then I ask their input and assign them stable groups for the next unit.

Don’t do a math or skills review, please
Just don’t! Why? Students will forget the “reviewed” skills by the time they need to use them later in the course and you will be grumbling “why don’t they remember these skills? We reviewed them!” Only ever introduce or review skills immediately before students use them in a meaningful way (tip: a skills review page doesn’t count as meaningful). Also, physics isn’t just another math class (see tip 1).

Train students in the learning habits and behaviours that will lead to success
When we assume students have certain learning habits, we tilt the field in favour of those who have successfully played the learning game up through grade 10. However, many “successful” students have poor habits that don’t serve them well. But more than that, I want to catch those students who have drifted through school and never really liked anything – their habits are often appalling. I want these students to like school for the first time because of their physics class. Important ideas that should be part of students’ training are:
  • Collaboration: teach students how to collaborate in learning right from day 1 (see tip 1)
  • Success: the vast majority of students can do very well in a physics class, not just the “Einstein”s; emphasize that this includes girls and under-represented visible minorities. I repeat this success theme very often throughout the course. I use this presentation for success and this to encourage a diversity of people to pursue physics.
  • High Standards: have students practice high quality work and meeting minimum standards that are both reasonable and very high. Rubrics and very clear exemplars really do help. Be unfailingly and indefatigably cheerful in your determination to have students redo work until it meets your high minimum standard right from day 1; the vast majority of students can achieve this if you persist. This is an important part of your job.

Don’t teach new physics content
Keep the focus on the process of learning and the standards of work during the introductory lessons; no new or challenging concepts yet! Any science content you do use in your intro lessons should be straight forward or involve simple background knowledge. Bonus feature: any straggler students who switch in to your class after a few days have not missed any physics content. Once the learning norms of the class are established, it is pretty easy to fit in a few extra kids who didn’t get the full training.

Investments in learning pay off!
Education is important for the many benefits it confers throughout a person’s life. Likewise in the physics classroom: the time you spend during the introductory lessons training students (and not teaching content) will pay off throughout the rest of the course. In what ways, you ask? Students will enjoy the course more because it keeps them active, is not needlessly mathy, and they know they can succeed. Students will work to a higher level because they know they are able, you have provided lots of supports, and you won’t let them get away with sloppy work. And students will develop greater learning independence from the teacher (and therefore persistence) because they work confidently with their colleagues and know that the tasks you give them are both manageable and fun.

I hope you find some these tips useful to help start your physics course this fall. Stay tuned for the next installment on the study of motion!
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