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Analysis of Physics Education Methodology

I. Summary of Physics Education Teaching Strategies
The goal of education today is to make the student the center of instruction and assessment. Different aspects of this suggest higher order learning through constructivism, inquiry learning, multiple intelligences and alternative assessment. This paper’s focus will be on physics instruction strategies. Considering this more in depth, it will look at the definitions of the most common strategies, how students learn best, what strategies work best statistically, and how this compares to what is being taught in science methods courses for teachers. Instead of specifying the type of method used to teach a lecture or an inquiry-based activity, I will review the most popular teaching strategies for physics throughout the high school physics curriculum.

When one thinks of a traditional lecture, one might imagine an old professor talking in a monotone voice with his back turned to the class while writing endless stuff on the board. To an average high school student, this is probably the same relationship that they would have with the word lecture. But, what really is a lecture? Why is it used? Why does it seem to be the most popular teaching strategy among teachers and the most unpopular among students? It is difficult to get a solid grasp of what the term lecture means because it means different things to different people. According to an article by Sungur, Semra, and Tekkaya published in the Journal of Educational Research:

Traditional instruction (also known as traditional lecture) is reminiscent of the popular perception of school in America. Students are instructed by the teacher to study the textbook. The teacher provides information to the students, including concepts, facts, terms, and diagrams. Class periods are lecture based and involve note taking, usually through the use of a chalk board or white board. In this instructional style, it is expected that students will answer questions generated by their teachers. (p. 307-317)

A perfect example of a traditional lecture in a physics classroom involves a teacher discussing the lesson’s content by simply talking while using minimal external guides (chalkboards, dry erase boards, Power Points, and/or extremely simple demonstrations). This may be more involved than the traditional definition of the term lecture, but in today’s classroom, this would be the norm in the case of a straight lecture strategy. To a student, this may seem boring and tedious especially if the lecture involves note-taking. The fairly simple task of copying exactly what the teacher has written down may not be harmful at first, but the visual cues and inclusiveness that is lost on such a task is ultimately what causes this method to lose its effectiveness.

However, some research shows that, if properly done, lecture can be a very stimulating and successful teaching strategy. Greg Reihman of Lehigh (University) Lab cites Ken Bain-Professor of History, Director of the Center of Teaching Excellence at New York University, and author of What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard University Press: 2004):

Effective, captivating lectures (1) begin with a question; (2) help students understand the significance of the question, i.e., why it’s worth asking; (3) engage students in some higher-order intellectual activity, e.g., analysis, evaluation, comparison, synthesis, application; (4) help students work towards answering the question for themselves; (5) leave students with a new question raised by the day’s activities. (Reihman 2005)

A common factor that can be surmised from the strategy above is that the teacher is in total control of the student’s learning from beginning to end. There is no point at which the student can assume responsibility. There is also little to no interaction with the other students in the class. Such a construct is based on the generalization that all students learn the same way; they just need to be spoon-fed the data. According to Howard Gardner and his multiple intelligences theory, each student has his own strengths and weaknesses (intelligences, modalities), thus precipitating the need for varied and individualized instruction.

The second strategy is Individual Inquiry. This is an inquiry-based strategy. Students work individually without the aid of a group and with minimal guidance from the teacher. A description of this strategy comes from research studying its effectiveness in the AIP Conference Proceedings:

In (this) style (2) the students worked alone. At the checkpoints the instructors gave the students an answer key for them to self-check their work. This style was to evaluate how well the students would perform using inquiry-based activities without the benefit of working within a cooperative learning group and without the aid of instructor dialogue. (Selçuk, Gamze S., Serap Çalişkan, and Mustafa Erol)

This strategy is often used in classrooms where the teacher lacks sufficient knowledge of the material. For those students who work well by themselves, this would be a perfect strategy. However, the goal in education is to help every student. Many students may find it hard to get started or find a sense of direction in this kind of strategy; even with a well drawn-out plan of procedures. Without confirmation from their peers or instructor, a majority of students tend to become bored, irritated, and simply unmotivated. This might work best in tandem with another strategy to offer an option for students with varying degrees of learning modalities.

The third strategy is Cooperative Inquiry. This strategy is similar to Individual Inquiry. It involves cooperative learning with groups of 3-4 students. When students work in groups, roles can be assigned, ideas can be “bounced-off” each other, and teamwork and communication skills can be fostered. This strategy of teaching is most similar to a typical job environment of an office and/or meeting. An example of this strategy in a job setting would be a group of engineers working together to fix a problem with a machine or a group of writers trying to come up with the next blockbuster movie. There is little, if any, input from the instructor (boss), and the guidance is still the students’ (employees’) responsibility. Cooperative Inquiry is also a popular strategy for teachers that lack specific content knowledge. In some cases, a group activity like this will be planned for a substitute instructor for the simple sake of allowing the students to run themselves. Some key components that are missing in this approach are the questions from the teacher, clear guidance, and motivation. Another factor that hinders this approach is the problem with assessing individuals. The difficulty of distinguishing the individual’s work from the group’s work makes assessment challenging.

The final strategy that will be discussed is Guided Cooperative-Inquiry. Notice that the different strategies appear to build on to each other. This shows an evolution of teaching strategies that culminates with a blend of the best practices of each individual strategy. Guided Cooperative-Inquiry is based on building inquiry, teamwork, communication, thought-process, and higher order learning skills. Unlike Cooperative Inquiry, Guided Cooperative Inquiry involves “instructors performing checkpoints using Socratic dialogue.” (Endorf, Koenig, and Braun p 89-92) This dialogue can be in form of questions, though-provoking statements, and/or further instruction. Most important about this strategy is to keep the focus on the students. The teacher should, in a sense, give up control of the class to the students, but help guide them in the right direction. According to Endorf, Koenig, and Braun, when students find a solution to a problem without the instructor’s explicit instruction, the understanding and retention of the material is increased. By analyzing a problem through an inquiry-based activity, the intricacies of a theory become the “building blocks” of the content learned.

A great example of this is found in many contemporary classrooms across the country. With a solid structure of rules and procedures introduced at the beginning of the term, students can become proficient. Such a structure allows the opportunity for teachers to gradually transfer control from themselves into the hands of the students. By promoting teamwork, leadership, and communication, students learn life skills and in return respect is shared. When you have group members that are relying on you, there is a sense of motivation to fulfill your role in the group. When the students have questions and all other resources have been exhausted, a simple statement or hint can be given to get the students back on track. This strategy encourages students to think for themselves instead of relying on the teacher for everything.

Some reasons why both the Guided and non-Guided Cooperative Learning might not be used are because of the maturity of the class and the more in-depth research that a teacher must do to provide proper guided “Socratic dialogue.” Some students aren’t mature enough to work in groups in which they are responsible for their own learning. Through gradual introduction, clear procedures, and external motivation, students can begin to learn to work well with this strategy. Some other drawbacks of cooperative learning strategies are time constraints and the difficulty of individual assessment. Usually when cooperative learning activities are planned, they are done so by the teacher from scratch; a very time consuming task that involves hours and hours of preparation. Individual assessment often done through quizzes and test is made more difficult because of the group work that is turned in. Very often what works best in this situation is the use of a checklist while the teacher walks around the room observing and questioning. Almost all of these drawbacks are directed towards the teacher. However, as in most things that are done well, it takes time and commitment to place the individual student at the center of learning.

II. Best Practices for Teaching Physics
A substantial portion of the content covered in the physics curriculum involves problem-based learning. Science, in general, is a field in which people observe, hypothesize, test, and draw conclusions; these processes hold true for physics as well. Physics teachers draw on experience-based problems to challenge their students to think for themselves. By taking a look at student learning in terms of problem-based instruction, a more solid idea can be gained and applied to physics teaching strategies. According to research published in the Educational Psychology Review by Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver, “Psychological research and theory suggests that by having students learn through the experience of solving problems, they can learn both content and thinking strategies.” The data tends to suggest that students learn best when they in control of the instruction. What is meant by this is that when students discover a solution to a problem by their own means with proper guided instruction, a student’s understanding is greatly increased. (Endorf, Koenig, and Braun) Couple the advantage of inquiry-based learning with the benefits of cooperative learning and proper guidance from a teacher, this strategy becomes balanced and complete. This type of instruction was referred to earlier as Guided Cooperative Inquiry.

Although the term “lecture” tends to have a negative connotation in the minds of teachers and students, this strategy is not bad. Research shows that lecture tends to do better than Individual Inquiry and in some cases non-Guided Cooperative Inquiry. In studies performed by Endorf, Koenig, and Braun, students test scores that were taken after both a Traditional Lecture and an Individual Inquiry lesson were pretty much the same. However, the Guided Cooperative Inquiry test scores were significantly higher and in some cases doubled the Traditional Lecture scores. The researchers summarize their conclusions by saying:

Evidence supports that inquiry-based curricula result in greater learning gains on tests of conceptual understanding and that such courses lead teachers to be more open to the prospect of teaching by inquiry. (p. 89-92)

Although Guided Cooperative Learning seems to be the best strategy, the analysis of the test scores show that there are discrepancies between the different strategies, content taught, and the test scores. (p. 89-92) There are factors in effect here that are not inherently present. For example, the type of instructional strategy that works best for one student might not work well for another student. Some students are more visual learners while others prefer to obtain their information through reading. Some students may work best in a group, others work best by themselves. These differences are called modalities, made famous by the American developmental psychologist Howard Gardner. Students have what he called “multiple intelligences.” (Gardner) In essence, there is no best way to teach a group of students because all students are inherently unique. To cover a majority of the students with a teaching strategy would leave out a portion of the class and potentially hinder them from learning at the start of the process.

III. Three Keys for Transitioning Student-Teachers
How physics teachers actually teach in comparison to how they learned to teach is as individual as the students they will be teaching. However, we can make some broad generalizations. It appears that the ability for pre-service teachers (student teachers) to transfer what is learned in their methods courses to the classroom is based on a couple of key elements.

The first key element is thorough understanding of both the theory of the educational strategies and an intimate knowledge of the physics content from both a student and a teacher’s perspective. Similar to music, pre-service teachers must know the content in depth and be able to analyze how the content they are teaching is perceived from the audience’s (student’s) point of view. By staying true to this, a pre-service teacher can begin to gain a deeper understanding of how they teach and how different strategies affect their students. They can also make more accurate assessments of their students and themselves.

The degree of content knowledge of the teacher is extremely important in maintaining composure and control in the classroom. If a teacher is presented with a predicament in class related to the use of a strategy, she is more likely to adapt to these changes when she knows the content she is teaching. Here is an example: A teacher has assigned a lab that he/she obtained from the book. The students start the lab set-up and begin their experimentation when the teacher realizes that there is a mistake in the lab set-up. A knowledgeable teacher can alter the lab to achieve the learning objective. A less knowledgeable teacher cannot. Knowing what the lab is trying to achieve and familiarity with the theory and content associated with it can allow a teacher to adapt more proficiently.

The second key element is practice. It would seem that the application of these strategies from the books to the classroom would be straightforward, but experience and data show that this is not the case. According to a study by Deborah Oh published in the Journal of Instructional Psychology, the ease of transferring learned knowledge from science methods courses to actual classroom practice is intimately tied to the amount of practice that an education student has with those methods. Consider playing an instrument for a concert. You can study the notes on the page, memorize them, figure out sticking or places to take breaths, but none of it will prepare you better than actually playing. The same thing applies to education methods courses. When education students are given opportunities to test what they have learned, struggle through, reflect, and modify their methods, they are gaining the same valuable experience that their future students would gain from applying the same basic methods with physics problems. The priceless experience that education students are given allows them to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, but students cannot learn from their mistakes if they are not presented with actual practicum experience before they become teachers. By practicing different strategies in a trial and error sort of manner, teachers can begin to find their strengths and weaknesses. These realizations can determine whether a teacher tries new strategies or just sticks to what they already know how to do, which might not necessarily be in the best interest of their students.

The third and final key element is reflection. The ability to observe, take notes, reflect, and make changes is an essential aspect of teaching. If this were not done, it would be like playing an instrument to an audience with one’s eyes and ears covered. The player would know that they were making sound, but wouldn’t know what it sounded like or how the audience perceived it. By taking off these metaphorical barriers, teachers can begin to analyze themselves and make corrections. Reflection, in a sort, is like a conclusion to a lab report in which their students will do. Such elements as purpose, procedures, sources of error, and content learned are analyzed and formulated into a reflection of the lab itself. Teachers must reflect in order to gain valuable information and assess themselves. The leaps in education reform would never have been made if educators did not reflect and consider their efforts in terms of effectiveness and student understanding.

IV. Conclusion and Recommendation
To summarize, the best way to teach students in physics is to use instruction strategies that vary. Change the day- to-day into a new learning experience. The brain is a muscle, and so it must also get challenged with varying exercises and strategies. The research done by Endorf, Koenig, and Braun shows that Guided Cooperative Inquiry is the most successful in developing student understanding of problem-based content, but this should not be the only strategy that is used. When using Guided Cooperative-Learning, the teacher should allow him/herself to give up control and object of attention over to the students. It seems that the most effective strategy is to be open to changes in environment, student knowledge-base, student motivation, and other unforeseen aspects of teaching that happen to arise. Have a plan, but do not be afraid to deviate that plan if it does not suit your students.

Pre-service teachers can transfer their skills more successfully if they implement three key elements into their teaching: (1) deep understanding of their content area, (2) practice, and (3) reflection. By understanding the content that they are teaching, pre-service teachers have a better chance of adapting to adverse situations. Gaining valuable teaching experience through in-class instruction allows pre-service teachers to apply their content knowledge and teaching strategies. Reflecting on these experiences gives pre-service teachers the chance to gain a deeper understanding of their teaching, their students, and the effects one has on the other.

Works Cited

Endorf, Robert J., Kathleen M. Koenig, and Gregory A. Braun “A Preliminary Study of the Effectiveness of Different Recitation Teaching Methods.” AIP Conference Proceedings 818.1 (2006): 89-92. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Dec. 2009.

Gardner, Howard. “Five Minds for the Future. (Cover story).” Future Survey 30.7 (2008): 1. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 7 Dec. 2009.

Hmelo-Silver, Cindy E. “Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?”
Educational Psychology Review 16.3 (2004): 235-266. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Dec. 2009.

Oh, Deborah M., et al. “Impact of Pre-Service Student Teaching Experience on Urban School Teachers.” Journal of Instructional Psychology 32.1 (2005): 82-98. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Dec. 2009.

Reihman, Greg. Lehigh Lab. “Faculty Developments: Two Perspectives on the Effective Use of Lecture Time.” Lehigh Lab Notes. 2.1 (2005)

Selçuk, Gamze S., Serap Çalişkan, and Mustafa Erol “Learning Strategies of Physics Teacher Candidates: Relationships with Physics Achievement and Class Level.” AIP Conference Proceedings 899.1 (2007): 511-512. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 7 Dec. 2009.

Sungur, Semra, and Ceren Tekkaya “Effects of Problem-Based Learning and Traditional
Instruction on Self-Regulated Learning.” Journal of Educational Research 99.5 (2006): 307-317. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 7 Dec. 2009.