physics logo
Physics Practicals

Instructor Guide

Helpful Information and Hints for TAs

“I learned first year Physics by tutoring this course.” – a former instructor

If this is your first time serving as an Instructor, you may be surprised at how little first year Physics you remember. As the above quote indicates, this does not make you unique. In addition to the Guides to the Modules for your students, for almost every Module we have prepared Instructor Guides to help you re-learn this material. It is important that you have looked this material over before each Practical, so you are at least a little bit ahead of your students.

Philosophy and Implementation

"You can not teach a [person] anything; you can only help him [or her] discover it in [them self].” –Galileo

Much of the traditional educational process uses the following model:

The instructor possesses the knowledge, and students can acquire that knowledge by listening to the instructor "lecture" about it.

However, as the quote from Galileo indicates, many have known for a long long time that this model doesn't really work very well. Beginning in the early 1990's, Physics Education Research has clearly proved that for most students Galileo was correct.

That research has also shown that:

  • When first year students begin a University Physics course, most of them have incorrect ideas about the basic principles that govern the physical universe. For example, most of them have concepts about forces and motion that are largely Aristotelian, not Newtonian.
  • For a traditional course based on mathematical formulae and problem solving, at the end of the academic year student wrong concepts have not significantly changed.

The research has also discovered some techniques that help students overcome their incorrect ideas.

  • Conceptually based activities using a Guided Discovery model is the single most effective strategy in helping students to understand the fundamental ideas of Physics.
  • Whenever possible, the activities should be based on real physical apparatus.
  • Most students learn most effectively in a social context interacting with their peers.  They do not learn best by being lectured to.

The Practicals implement these principles.

How to Be an Effective Instructor

During most of the session, you and the other Instructor will typically "float" around the room individually, monitoring the work that is going on and intervening when requested.

As we have just seen, the heart of the learning process in the Physics Practicals is a Learning Team of 3 or 4 students working together on a series of activities. Your role is to intervene when the Learning Team is stuck and not able to resolve an issue. However, effective intervention does not mean giving the answer: recall that students don't really learn when they just listen to an authority giving the information. Instead, you should attempt to lead the students to the answer to their own question by asking leading questions of your own.

When you ask a question, do not expect an immediate answer. Students sometimes need time to think and/or discuss it among themselves.

Of course, you do not want to frustrate your students by seeming to be unwilling to help. Thus in very rare cases you may have to make a statement instead of asking a question.

You may find that at first this Socratic method of teaching, where you only ask questions, is very difficult to do. Persevere: it gets easier and really is the most effective type of teaching for these Practicals.

Since many modules will involve physical apparatus or a computer simulation, you should also resist the urge to actually manipulate the system under consideration yourself. If you "drive" instead of letting your students do it, you may benefit but they will not. Keeping your hands behind your back or in your pockets will help you resist the sometimes strong urge to just do it for them.

You should also try to insure that all members of the Learning Team "drive" the apparatus. Do not let a single student dominate any aspect of the activities. Also keep an eye out for Teams in which, say, three members are doing most of the work and one student is sort of hanging back and not participating.

There is one final matter that is sometimes difficult. When (not if) you get a question for which you do not know the answer, admit it. Tell the students that you will find out what the answer is, and then do so. If you do not have time to find out the answer during the Practical, find out for the next meeting. Do not try to fake it: this can be disastrous for your role as an Instructor.

In summary, then, the 2 most important teaching strategies are:

  1. Make most of your interactions with your students involve you asking questions.
  2. At least figuratively, keep your hands behind your back or in your pockets.

The First Meeting

Often the students attend a Practical to do a Pre-Course Assessment before they have been assigned to teams.  Here we discuss the first "real" meeting, when the students have been assigned to teams and will do some activities.

There is an old saying, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."  The first "real" meeting of your Practical group will set the tone for the entire term, and is therefore particularly important.

Here is a list of some things that you will want students to learn in the first meeting:

  • How are the Practicals organised? (Learning Teams of 3 or 4 students working cooperative on a series of modules.)
  • How will they be evaluated?
  • What are the requirements to succeed? (Attending the Practicals and participating in the activities.)
  • What benefit will they receive by attending the Practicals? (The topics of the Practicals will appear on their tests, and thus their performance on the tests will benefit from participation.)
  • You will treat the students in a respectful and professional manner. You expect the students to treat you in the same fashion.
  • You expect the students will treat each other in a respectful and professional manner.
  • What should the students call you?

This last point deserves a bit more discussion. Most of these students are fresh out of high school, where they have learned that they should call their teachers "Mr." or "Ms." Don't make them uncomfortable by not making it clear to them what to call you. If you want to be addressed by your first name, say so. If you want to be addressed by your last name (Mr. Blow, Ms. Blow, or Dr. Blow) tell them. If you choose the latter, you should consider addressing them in a similar fashion. You should discuss this issue with the other Practical Instructor, and use the same protocol.

At this point you should tell the students that each Team will have three designated people:

  • Facilitator. This person takes primary responsibility for the Team. He/she should keep the Team on track, and when discussion with the entire Group occurs he/she is the primary spokesperson for the Team.
  • Record Keeper. This is the person who does most of the writing in the lab book.
  • Skeptic. This person should be skeptical of all conclusions reached by the Team.  This is not the same thing as being critical or negative.

Have each Team choose the Facilitator, Record Keeper, and Skeptic for this first session.

Next is the "name game." In this you and the other Instructor briefly introduce yourselves to the entire group. Information should include:

  1. Your name.
  2. Your field of study and/or your research.
  3. Where you live.
  4. A personal fact about yourselves.

Then have each member of the Team introduce themselves to each other providing the same information. Finally, have each Facilitator introduce the Team to the rest of the Group.  Using the hand-held microphone for this is a good idea.

Other People Implementing Results of Physics Education Research

We are certainly not the only Physics Department that is implementing the type of learning of our Physics Practicals. Here we provide some links to other groups from whom we have learned about this type of education.

Workshop Physics. This project, led by Priscilla Laws at Dickinson College, is the closest match to our project. We have happily used many of their materials.

University of Washington Physics Education Group. This group, led by Lillian McDermott, has developed Tutorials in Introductory Physics.and the related Physics by Inquiry.

SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs). This initiative, coming out of Rensselaer, is now based at North Carolina State. It is now in use at many other institutions.

TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) is a SCALE-UP like implementation at MIT.

SUPER (Sydney University Physics Education Research). The Workshop Tutorials are another valuable resource.

University of Maryland PER. This page has many resources and links.