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Help me help physics students?

  1. Nov 5, 2012 #1
    Hello there!

    I am a physics tutor for a U.S. university too far north for anyone to care. I'm actually a second year undergraduate pursuing a degree in chemistry, with a physics minor. I would major in physics, but this school does not even have a physics program. One or two upper division classes are offered every semester. One is the EM sequence for Electrical Engineering majors. Introductory modern physics is every fall, so those same EE majors can get a minor. Every spring they'll offer whatever the heck our chair is interested in teaching (apparently I can beg him to teach other things).

    I have taken and received A's in the calculus-based sequence, and I am currently in modern physics with the third highest grade. First of all, I know THIS MEANS NOTHING. An A with a 79% means I got 79% of what the teacher threw at me. For all I know, I may suck at physics. I was the only one who applied to be their tutor and my grades backed me up. I fully acknowledge that I am under-qualified. However, I am the only convenient resource and I am determined to serve them well, even if it means laboring through one of their web-based homework problems with amusing/embarrassing trial and error.

    The averages in General Physics 1 and 2 (PHYS211 and PHYS212) are dismal. The last exam average for 212 was a 37%, with a final class average of 57%. I know such numbers can be typical, but hasn't been curved to reflect this. More than half the class is seeing a D or lower on their online report card. Their prof is the terrifying department chair, so the dysfunctional "physics tutor" gets to hear this. I'm doing almost as much therapy as actual homework help.

    On the note of homework help, the most common complaint I hear from them is:
    "The tests are nothing like the homework."

    I agree. It was the same way when I took it. I managed because I'm obsessed with physics and would seek out other materials and practice exams besides what we'd been given. I don't know that they should be expected to do the same.

    "He emphasizes different concepts in lectures than he does in exams... and he rarely addresses anything we see in an assignment."

    I partially disagree because he uses that new-fangled clicker system, where he poses "thought provoking" questions about physics concepts. However, they are often trick questions. Also, any examples he poses are generally novel in nature rather than practical. It's cool to know how the sweet spot on a baseball bat is related to torque, but we wanted to see a worked out statics problem.

    I don't know how many of the complaints about him are just students venting or if he's really failing as a teacher somehow. I do so much self-studying that I tend not to notice if a prof sucks, so I just like him... he's the only physics we have. Either way, there's a disconnect.

    This is also present in the algebra based physics to some degree, but less so because more and more people are taking AP physics B. There, the complaint is they should assume that students have NO prior physics knowledge, or they should make a prereq course for that as well. I personally find their assignments more difficult to help with (and much longer, with 70 problems a week).

    My role has been this:

    Working through problems with them one on one. I'm in the department lobby and they just visit during my assigned hours.

    Therapy. Reassuring them that physics is hard and other people are also faring badly. If a fool like me can survive, they can too. Being frustrated won't help their understanding, etc.

    Helping them prioritize the material. They see Young's Modulus in 4 of their 70 homework problems... it will not appear on their exam. Especially if they don't have an equation sheet.

    Thoughts on what I've been doing to help and what I can do better... besides having better qualifications? Should I be communicating more with professors? Am I investing too much interest in whether these people learn physics? I don't think it's such a mark on me that I want to help other people not-hate a subject I love.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 12, 2012 #2

    Andy Resnick

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    Education Advisor

    A few thoughts (I teach the algebra-based intro physics sequence here):

    1) I appreciate the effort you are putting into tutoring- I see/hear almost the exact same student problems/complaints, so your situation is not unique. My students come to class with a set of prejudices about what they think physics is (ex: a bunch of math, not related to the real world, really hard, plug-n-chug, etc.) and in their minds, they are terrified of being in the class and resent that they have to be there. It sounds like the instructor is trying to present the material in accordance with current APS/AAPT thinking: to use the class to teach conceptual thinking/problem solving rather than rote memorization (which is a good idea), but since this is not what the students expect from a Physics class, they get frustrated.

    2) It may be helpful to try and distinguish between problems with math and problems with physics: I give my students a 'math facts' pre-test on the first day to gauge their level of preparedness. Students that can't do the pre-test are directed to math tutoring (as opposed to physics tutoring). I don't know if you have the ability to send those students to a math tutor, but in any case it may help to distinguish those challenges.

    3) If possible, have the students work together in a group, while you offer guidance (hints). This will help the students get away from the 'give me the right formula' approach to physics. For example, I suggest a few ways to start solving the problem- underlining 'key words', drawing a picture, listing knowns and unknowns, re-writing the question in their own words, etc. Teaching problem-solving and critical thinking is hard to do.

    4) keep at it- if this is something you enjoy, then you may have a bright future as a teacher. Hope this helps, let me know what works and what doesn't!
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