Physics Education Research

If you are a physics teacher and you don't know about Physics Education Research (PER) then you want to educate yourself as soon as possible. It explains why your students don't learn physics even though you are explaining things so clearly. It also tells you what you can do about it.

In a nutshell, PER has detemined that most of your students learn differently from people who go into physics (i.e. you!). They come into your class with misconceptions and they don't make connections or see patterns automatically the way you do. You need to help your students confront their misconceptions and actively engage their minds in building new mental models. There are specific techniques that will help you with this and they usually invovle memorizing some acronym. For example, there's Just In Time (JIT), Interactive Lecture Demonstrations (ILD), Elicit Confront Resolve (ECR), Predict Observe Explain Observe (POEO), Think Pair Share (TPS), Peer Instruction and whiteboards (not the so-called 'smart' boards which are a stupid waste of money.). These techniques have a lot in common. They actively involve students in contructing their own knowledge, self-testing, and focussed student discourse.

To get more detail about PER, you should read Carl Weiman's article from Physics Today, "Transforming Physics Education". Next, I recommend that you get a copy of "Five Easy Lessons: Strategies for Successful Physics Teaching" by Randall D. Knight. he does an excellent overview of the research and various techniques and then goes through a standard physics curriculum, topic by topic. He points out specific misconceptions and strategies for each topic. If you live in Ontario, be sure to go to the conferences of the Ontario Association of Physics Teachers held each spring. They are committed to providing workshops that allow you to experience PER in action and they will provide you with lots of resources that you can use the next week. Costs are kept as low as possible and even lower for new teachers.

A great example of a web-based resource using PER techniques is the explanation of Bose-Einstein Condensation on the Physics 2000 site. This is a difficult concept made really comprehensible by developing the ideas in a well-thought out order, using a 'conversation' as a vehicle to clarify points and providing simulations that the student can explore.