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Five Frequently Fatal Freshman Physics Fantasies

  1. Jan 22, 2016 #1
    http://arxiv.org/ftp/physics/papers/0605/0605152.pdf

    I was reminded of this paper this week while preparing a number of Calc 3 instructional videos for a new YouTube channel. An abridged version was published by Physics Education, but I prefer the 3 page version which discusses:

    The Fantasy of the Miracle Finish
    The Fantasy of the Soft Hearted Professor
    The Fantasy that College is a Simple Extension of High School
    The Fantasy that Weak Areas Won’t Be Tested
    and
    The Fantasy that Passing is More Important than Learning

    A number of colleagues have found it useful to link or paraphrase our paper in their introductory course materials, and I thought students and faculty here might also find it useful.

    Edited to add link to video.
     
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2016
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 22, 2016 #2

    ZapperZ

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    There are only 5?!

    :)

    Zz.
     
  4. Jan 22, 2016 #3
    Let's list more :smile:

    Don't forget to add them to our media area!

    btw, I think you should have titled the paper "Five Frequently Fatal Freshman Fhysics Fantasies" :biggrin:
     
  5. Jan 22, 2016 #4

    blue_leaf77

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    Like fantasy that you could excel in all courses while having a serious relationship with an opposite gender?
     
  6. Jan 22, 2016 #5
    That was my excuse! :wink:
     
  7. Jan 22, 2016 #6

    Nugatory

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    The wording of the title (both paper and thread) make it clear that these five are drawn from a potentially larger set. :smile:
    A question for further research would be whether there an upper bound on the cardinality of that set.
     
  8. Jan 22, 2016 #7

    Orodruin

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    ##\aleph_{215}##
     
  9. Jan 22, 2016 #8
    Is that more or less than the amount of real numbers to you?
     
  10. Jan 22, 2016 #9

    StatGuy2000

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    I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Courtney's summary of the 5 frequently fatal freshman physics mistakes. I would only add that these mistakes are not unique to freshman physics courses -- the same fatal errors also apply to math courses, or really any STEM course (and to many humanities & social science studies as well).
     
  11. Jan 22, 2016 #10

    Orodruin

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    Yes.
     
  12. Jan 22, 2016 #11

    Drakkith

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    Nice article! I also agree with it and always try to instill the idea in the students I tutor that success in physics and math requires consistent practice.
     
  13. Jan 22, 2016 #12
    So definitely not equal, good to know.
     
  14. Jan 22, 2016 #13

    RJLiberator

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    Good read, I am very intimate with all of them! Fortunately, I've chosen to avoid them (most of the time).
     
  15. Jan 22, 2016 #14

    Mark44

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    I was going to give this answer, but Orodruin beat me to it.

    I'm confident that the cardinality of the reals is not equal to ##\aleph_{215}##. Could be more, could be less, but definitely not equal. :oldbiggrin:

    @Dr. Courtney, interesting article. I hope students take it to heart. One thing that puzzles me is how students can reasonably study with all kinds of distractions going - music, TV, etc. If they're able to do this, more power to them, but I find that these external sources of "noise" detract from my ability to focus on what I'm trying to do.
     
  16. Jan 22, 2016 #15

    e.bar.goum

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    Of course, people in same-gender relationships have no such issues with balancing coursework and relationships. :rolleyes:
     
  17. Jan 22, 2016 #16

    jasonRF

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    I must confess that as a student I sometimes thought getting a good grade meant that I was learning.
     
  18. Jan 22, 2016 #17

    Ken G

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    I'd add:
    The fantasy that things that sound right when the instructor says them will leap into your own mind when you have to do it yourself on the test. But learning does not look like a judgement that something someone else says make sense, it looks like a judgement that something you say yourself makes sense.

    The fantasy that copying someone else's solution is the same thing as solving the problem yourself. If that is your strategy, you better sit next to that person at exam time.

    The fantasy that the learning process should not feel uncomfortable or frustrating at any time, so if it does, do something else. Actually, learning typically does have a phase that feels uncomfortable and confusing, possibly even frustratingly so, but this is a normal phase that must be persevered through and not given up on, to reach the payoff when the "light bulb" finally goes on.
     
  19. Jan 22, 2016 #18

    Ken G

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    Hopefully it usually does, but there definitely can be a phenomenon of the "illusion of learning." This is as much a caution for instructors as for students-- it works like this. The instructor says A, and the student hears it, but does not understand it. Then on the exam, the instructor asks if A, B, or C, and the student answers, A. The instructor smiles, gives the student a good grade, and imagines that the student understands A. The student, having forgotten that they never really understood A, takes their good grade as evidence that they must understand A. This is the "illusion of learning."
     
  20. Jan 22, 2016 #19

    atyy

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    Like in analyzing alternating current circuits, I think it us possible to get an A yet not know the electron doesn't jump across the capacitor plates.
     
  21. Jan 22, 2016 #20

    Ken G

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    Ah yes, "displacement current", everybody's favorite!
     
  22. Jan 22, 2016 #21

    Student100

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    One of the biggest, and maybe the most detrimental, fallacies that many of the introductory students have is that physics is what they've seen in popular renditions on TV. I cringe when I see freshmen show up to mechanics wearing Schrodinger cat t-shirts - I feel like a piece of me dies on the inside.

    Obviously many of these "fantasies" aren't so much a problem internal to the student, but to the failings of the education system in general.
     
  23. Jan 23, 2016 #22
    Isn't that just an extension of the: Thou shalt not wear the T-shirt of the band you are going to see? They certainly can't wear their Schrodinger cat shirts to physics class. That would be smh.
     
  24. Jan 23, 2016 #23
    They may not have had their origins internal to the student, but they sure need to get fixed internal to the student if the student is going to succeed in a STEM major. Responsible teachers work hard not to allow these fantasies to continue propagating in students who have passed their courses. I've found the best way to do that is to bring the misconceptions out into the open and talk about them, and to uphold appropriate standards of academic rigor so that students persisting in their fantasies are unlikely to succeed.

    You are right that most students who arrive at college entrenched in these fantasies represent systemic failures of high school education. Expecting a miracle finish and getting grade bumps from soft hearted teachers works pretty well in high school, and a lot of teachers cater to student weaknesses with multiple choice tests and overly specific study guides as if the teacher and student are working together to redefine success as getting past the obstacles to graduation put in place by curriculum designers rather than really learning things that are important to know.

    Some time after writing Five Frequently Fatal Freshman Physics Fantasies, a colleague and I published a follow-up paper entitled, "Science and Engineering Education: Who is the Customer?" The bottom line is we thought it would be wise to address many of the systemic issues in education by considering the customer to be the taxpayers, future employers, and downstream courses rather than an undue emphasis only on the student as the customer of education. Who doesn't wish a student had been better prepared for their current course by the science and math courses they took in the past? Don't we owe the same consideration to the future profs and employers of the students sitting in our classes?

    Moaning about the global state of education is of limited utility. Making sure every student in our classes has mastered the material needed to succeed downstream before we assign a passing grade is something we all can do. Fantasies only grow if you keep feeding them.
     
  25. Jan 23, 2016 #24

    jasonRF

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    It can be more subtle. My third semester of college I took an intermediate level microeconomics class where the professor insisted on using lots of math. I found that I could simply setup the optimization problem, solve it with Lagrange multipliers, and pop out the answer. Repeat. I learned essentially no economics but got an good grade.

    Regarding the fantasies, I think parents play a role here, too. I had a friend that had gone to Stuyvesant Highschool (a magnet school in New York) whose parents had always been on top of his homework to make sure he got everything done on time. When he showed up at college he no longer had that, and almost flunked out. He didn't know how to manage himself. I think we need to let our kids learn some lessons the hard way in middle school and highschool. It may mean their GPA when they graduate isn't quite as good and they may go to a less selective college, but they may be better prepared to succeed. Especially in the age of 'open grade books' where parents can see every grade of every assignment in real time online this can be a problem.

    jason
     
  26. Jan 23, 2016 #25

    Choppy

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    The Fantasy that "Passing is More Important than Learning" Somehow Translates Into Grades Not Being Important
    Building on this earlier point it's not uncommon to see students complaining about how exams don't represent one's true knowledge, or that those who are successful have studied "for the test" but don't understand the material, or that grades don't really matter so long as one understands the material. The practical reality is that if you don't pass the course, you're not going to move on in academia, and in competitive circumstances (scholarships, graduate school competitions, etc.) the GPA is what is most often used to striate students. Learning is the "most" important thing, but examinations and grades are the tools that are used for objectively measuring that.

    The Fantasy That a Miracle Reference Letter Will Make Up for Years of Mediocre Results
    Reference letters do generally pull a lot of weight for graduate admissions, but I think there are a few points that often get missed by students. First, GPA correlates highly with how students are assessed in reference letters. It turns out most of those guys with the 4.00 GPA also have strong work ethic and outstanding research potential. Second, most reference letters aren't going to it can be very difficult to use reference letters to stratify candidates, particularly if you have a lot of candidates to sort through.

    The Fantasy that You're Going to be the Next Einstein
    You did well in high school. You're doing well as an undergraduate. You don't need to bother with labs, group work, or learning any of those pesky "applied" branches of physics because you're going to lock yourself in a room and single-handedly derive a theory of everything... from first principles... without ever having read any work that anyone else has done.
    Unfortunately this common misconception is that physics is performed in some kind of intellectual vacuum and that lone individuals are going to come along and revolutionize the field with new ideas. While the notion is romantic, I think a lot of students fail to see that a lot of very smart people have been working on a lot of the big questions in physics for a very long time and we've reached a point where a lot of the new insights come through large collaborative efforts.

    The Fantasy that the Courses You Chose This Semester Will Determine Your Career
    While the educational path a student choses is likely to have an influence on a student's career, the fact that you're signing up for an astrophysics major as an undergraduate does not mean that all you have to do is pass your courses and you'll become an astrophysicist. Education and career tend to be two separate things. Careers result from the opportunities that are available when a person choses to search for one. Education will obviously influence those, but there's a lot of serendipity involved as well.
     
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