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How should physics be taught in high school?

by cortiver
Tags: physics, school, taught
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cortiver
#1
Nov8-09, 06:09 AM
P: 46
I am very interested to learn of people's thoughts and experiences of physics in high school, an issue which has plagued me since I went through high school two years ago, where the final-year physics syllabus seemed to just expect people to memorize a set of talking points and regurgitate them in the exam, with no understanding involved. I guess that high school students don't necessarily have the tools to get a proper physics understanding, and the aim was to give people who are never going to study physics again some idea of the nature and importance of modern physics, but it left me very unmotivated. Here are some examples of questions from the physics final exam in the year I took it (2007):

Question 18(a) (2 marks):
How has our understanding of time been influenced by the discovery of the constancy of the speed of light?

Question 27(a) (3 marks):
Scientists tried to explain observations of black-body radiation using classical wave theory and then quantum theory. How does quantum theory satisfactorily explain black-body radiation?

These are very interesting questions, but I feel that the answers are far beyond the ability of high school students to understand or high school teachers to teach, and the only option was basically to memorize the relevant sections of the textbook. The teachers acknowledged that this was not "real physics", but didn't have much choice but to teach to the exam. I was lucky enough to have some idea already of what "real physics" was like, but if my only exposure had been from school I would never have chosen to study physics at university, and thus missed out on a great experience.

Is this really the best way? Can anyone relate a happier experience of their high school physics education?
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arildno
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Nov8-09, 06:36 AM
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Question 18 (7 marks):
How has our understanding of time been influenced by the discovery of the constancy of the speed of light?

Question 27 (8 marks):
Scientists tried to explain observations of black-body radiation using classical wave theory and then quantum theory. How does quantum theory satisfactorily explain black-body radiation?

These are very interesting questions, but I feel that the answers are far beyond the ability of high school students to understand or high school teachers to teach, and the only option was basically to memorize the relevant sections of the textbook.
Precisely!
This is the type of DEGENERATION of teaching physics that has become prevalent.

On the surface level, the questions seem to show that the students have MORE knowledge than students of previous generations, whereas in reality, the questions posed are too difficult to answer, so that the "correct" answer is to regurgitate the passage about it in the textbook.

All across the Western world, students' incompetence at elementary maths, say algebra is noted; rather than do anything about THAT, exams are made into giving credit hand-wavy, superficially "deep" answers.
Chi Meson
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Nov8-09, 06:46 AM
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The use of the "7 marks" implies that you are either in Britain, Austrailia, NZ, or you were taking the IB course. Am I correct? And which test were you being taught toward?

And were these questions "8 marks out of 100"?

These two questions are from a very advanced segment of physics. Was this a "Modern Physics" course, or was this part of a full "First Year" Physics class?

And, furthermore, were you given a syllabus where this questions was stated as one of a certain number of statements that you would need to "regurgitate"? If so, how long was this syllabus?

In an answer to your question, the way you have described it, no that is no way for physics to be taught. However, it is nearly impossible to teach physics perfectly to everyone, especially when you need to teach 15 to 25 very different people concurrently.

Everyone thinks they have the solution, and they can be quite adamant about it. Some go the full "conceptual" route, some go the "pure math" route, some do the 98% "hands on and figure it out yourself" route. The fad of "Physics First," putting physics in the curriculum before chemistry and biology is losing ground (mainly due the fact that physics teachers who had been teaching seniors for twenty years are shoved in front of a class of freshmen and doing horribly).

I would completely expect my students to answer both of those questions you included. That would be my IB/AP students, by the way, who will have taken 2 credits of physics by that time. I would expect to see completely uniquely-worded responses from each in varying degrees of correctness/completeness. These would be two of 50+ similar concepts I expect them to be able to answer. If any of my students can satisfactorily answer any two of this large list, something more than simple regurgitation must be going on.

Chi Meson
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Nov8-09, 06:57 AM
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How should physics be taught in high school?

Additional note:

I have a hard time thinking of what makes the first question "7 Marks" while the second is "8 Marks." THis implies that there are 7 and 8 distinct points that the grader will be looking for. This is clearly not the IB exam which would put a maximum of 3 or 4 marks per question.

When grading, I look for a combination of the inclusion of the most-pertinent facts, plus the sensibility of the answer. The student needs to demonstrate understanding. WHen he or she attempts to regurgitate without understanding (and the question is phrased such that simple regurgitation is not possible--this is done by forcing a synthesis that they have not had to do before) the result is a "word salad." Students would get points for knowing some facts, but not full points if they can't link those facts quickly to a newly introduced situation.
cortiver
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Nov8-09, 07:31 AM
P: 46
Quote Quote by Chi Meson View Post
The use of the "7 marks" implies that you are either in Britain, Austrailia, NZ, or you were taking the IB course. Am I correct? And which test were you being taught toward?
Yes, Australia. The test was the HSC, the end-of-school exam in the state of New South Wales.

Quote Quote by Chi Meson View Post
And were these questions "8 marks out of 100"?
They were out of 100. However, I just realized I wrote the wrong mark weightings (I was looking at the marks the whole question, not just the part I included). I will update my post accordingly.

Quote Quote by Chi Meson View Post
These two questions are from a very advanced segment of physics. Was this a "Modern Physics" course, or was this part of a full "First Year" Physics class?
It was for the main Physics course in the final year of school. Before the final year, students would have done one introductory year of physics (as I recall, it was basic mechanics, waves, etc.). The entire syllabus of the final year centered around "modern physics" though.

Quote Quote by Chi Meson View Post
And, furthermore, were you given a syllabus where this questions was stated as one of a certain number of statements that you would need to "regurgitate"? If so, how long was this syllabus?
Yes, there was a syllabus. It was indeed pretty long, but it was expected and normal for people to put in large amounts of study over the course of the year to learn it. You can read it here if you're interested (The dot points starting on page 41 are the relevant part).

The questions coincide pretty closely with the relevant points in the syllabus, so I don't think much understanding would have been necessary to answer them. Then again, I can only speak for the fact that I did not understand the concepts well at all (and still got a reasonable, though not excellent mark). Perhaps some other people, maybe with better teachers available, would have gotten more out of the course than I did.
Sorry!
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Nov8-09, 09:27 AM
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I feel that these types of questions and tests rely heavily on the students being self-motivated learners. If you're ok settling with just reading and regurg. then go ahead you'll pass, great.

Not all students are like that...
Chi Meson
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Nov8-09, 02:24 PM
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Quote Quote by arildno View Post
Precisely!
This is the type of DEGENERATION of teaching physics that has become prevalent.

On the surface level, the questions seem to show that the students have MORE knowledge than students of previous generations, whereas in reality, the questions posed are too difficult to answer, so that the "correct" answer is to regurgitate the passage about it in the textbook.

All across the Western world, students' incompetence at elementary maths, say algebra is noted; rather than do anything about THAT, exams are made into giving credit hand-wavy, superficially "deep" answers.
When was it done well?
cortiver
#8
Nov8-09, 04:04 PM
P: 46
Quote Quote by Sorry! View Post
I feel that these types of questions and tests rely heavily on the students being self-motivated learners. If you're ok settling with just reading and regurg. then go ahead you'll pass, great.

Not all students are like that...
Personally, I was not at all happy with just regurgitating, but the sad thing is, this probably lowered my marks rather than raised them, since I spent too much time trying to understand things properly (without much success - many of the topics would have required a pretty detailed understanding of electromagnetism, electrical engineering, QM and solid state theory), rather than learning all the dot points.
Chi Meson
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Nov8-09, 06:42 PM
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There's "regurgitation," then there's simple "vomit." I have had so many "honors" students who have become so accustomed to simply "spitting" their words onto paper, and having that be enough for at least partial credit.

You should see the anger I receive when a long, long "paragraph" that took up 15 minutes during a test received no points at all. Sometimes it's a nearly gibberish collection of partially "dismemerized" tidbits, and other times it is nearly perfectly memorized excerpts from the text that do not answer any portion of the questions that was posed.

It is clear to me, and to many half- to 3/4-decent teachers out there when a student demonstrates true depth of understanding. The trouble is finding a half-decent teacher.
Pinu7
#10
Nov9-09, 05:53 PM
P: 270
Any modern physics should not appear on any test or exam in an introductory physics course. The point is to make sure students are able to fully grasp the intuitive classical physical concepts, i.e. Newtonian Mechanics, Thermodynamics, Electromagnetism, and Optics. These are topics students can understand and appreciate at a deep level of thought.

However, modern physics, which should be taught in spare time, or, as an illustration of extension of classical topics, can't be understand by students in a deep level.
PrincePhoenix
#11
Nov10-09, 05:44 AM
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Swallowing and regurgitating facts is the standard way of passing exams over here (Pakistan). And that's why schools don't care whether students learn or not. Only after getting into CERTAIN universities do students get to learn physics (I guess from looking at people since I'm in school myself).
turin
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Nov11-09, 03:52 PM
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cortiver,
There are intro courses, and then there are survey courses. These two types of "low-level" courses have quite different agendas. Based on those examples that you gave, I would consider the course to be a survey course. I believe that, in a survey course, it is OK for an exam to test the student on their ability to simply glean various superficial facts. However, if this course was intended as an intro course to prepare a student for the next level of physics, then those exam questions are terrible, and they provide absolutely no useful feedback to the student, teacher, or high school administration.
cortiver
#13
Nov11-09, 10:56 PM
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Quote Quote by turin View Post
cortiver,
There are intro courses, and then there are survey courses. These two types of "low-level" courses have quite different agendas. Based on those examples that you gave, I would consider the course to be a survey course. I believe that, in a survey course, it is OK for an exam to test the student on their ability to simply glean various superficial facts. However, if this course was intended as an intro course to prepare a student for the next level of physics, then those exam questions are terrible, and they provide absolutely no useful feedback to the student, teacher, or high school administration.
From the content of the course it appears that it certainly was intended as a "survey course". I don't really see the value of such a course though. And since it was the only physics course available and was called simply "Physics", I feel that it gives people the wrong idea of what physics is about, as well as leaving them unprepared for university physics.
turin
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Nov12-09, 05:54 PM
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The purpose of a survey course is not to prepare students, but rather to get them interested or make them aware of the hot topics in the field. Then, the students can decide if they want to make the effort to further prepare themselves. Actually, survey courses are usually not graded very seriously, but I guess in high school they have to grade. I agree that there isn't much value in such a course, especially with all of the media available to students these days, but that's the idea. I'm sorry that you didn't like it.
Moonbear
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Nov12-09, 07:24 PM
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Quote Quote by Chi Meson View Post
There's "regurgitation," then there's simple "vomit." I have had so many "honors" students who have become so accustomed to simply "spitting" their words onto paper, and having that be enough for at least partial credit.

You should see the anger I receive when a long, long "paragraph" that took up 15 minutes during a test received no points at all. Sometimes it's a nearly gibberish collection of partially "dismemerized" tidbits, and other times it is nearly perfectly memorized excerpts from the text that do not answer any portion of the questions that was posed.

It is clear to me, and to many half- to 3/4-decent teachers out there when a student demonstrates true depth of understanding. The trouble is finding a half-decent teacher.
I get that well into college. I haven't figured out yet if they don't have a clue what the answer is, so toss out anything and everything hoping I'm not reading and just scanning for keywords to give points, or if they have miserable reading comprehension skills that they don't answer the question asked. And, yes, I get the same reaction when I get a ridiculously long answer, continued onto the back of the page, that doesn't contain any hint of an answer to the actual question asked and I give no credit for it.

This isn't just an issue with physics, it's an issue with many subject areas. Certainly the other sciences, but I'll bet even the English faculty have complaints about what's getting covered in high schools today.
Astronuc
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Nov22-09, 12:06 PM
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Quote Quote by cortiver View Post
Here are some examples of questions from the physics final exam in the year I took it (2007):

Question 18(a) (2 marks):
How has our understanding of time been influenced by the discovery of the constancy of the speed of light?

Question 27(a) (3 marks):
Scientists tried to explain observations of black-body radiation using classical wave theory and then quantum theory. How does quantum theory satisfactorily explain black-body radiation?
My high school used a college level text book, and the course was equivalent to a course in Introductory Physics with statics, kinematics, dynamics, E&M and some basic (introductory) quantum mechanics. The course was quantitative as well as qualitiative, i.e. we were supposed to understand concepts, but also apply them quantitatively. We did experiments every week, e.g., measuring acceleration, periodic motion, etc. We were expected to apply the theory (formulas) to the experiment, and discuss any departure/discrepancies from theory.

And we were encouraged to read Feynmann's lectures.


The questions in the OP seem like a BA (Bachelor of Arts) vs BS (Bachelor of Science). One is more Qualitative (Descriptive) while the other is more Quantitative.


I always thought high school should be taught much like college, but that requires that the lower level courses be more rigorous as well, so that students are better prepared.
Sankaku
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Nov22-09, 12:32 PM
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Quote Quote by Astronuc View Post
BA (Bachelor of Arts) vs BS (Bachelor of Science). One is more Qualitative (Descriptive) while the other is more Quantitative.
<off topic> Be very careful with generalizations from only one country. You have some universities like Oxford that do not give any BSc degrees at all. Want a degree in Physics or Chemistry from Oxford? Then it is going to be a BA whether you like it or not. I doubt anyone would call physics at Oxford non-quantitative.</off topic>
arildno
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Nov23-09, 05:53 AM
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Quote Quote by Chi Meson View Post
When was it done well?
From the period of late 19th century into the 1950s-1960s.

A facility to do elementary maths, as algebra properly should be a pre-condition for further studies.

The weight in this period to focus on analytic geometry, like studying conics, hones the algebraic skills better than most other ways.

Perhaps identifying parabolas and hyperbolas and how they lie in the plane is not very fun, but so what?


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