Context

Excerpts from the Fellowship Application

I have been teaching Principles of Physics to students from a mixture of majors since 2004. It is a basic calculus mechanics course and provides the physics underpinning for what will come later in Chemistry, Engineering and Extractive Metallurgy. It is also often taken by Secondary Education, Computer Gaming and Maths and Stats students. Some students have no problems with the course – they can find their way through it, get their assessment in on time, do their work well and get good grades. Many, however, struggle with what should be simple things like algebra and reading textbooks for understanding. Others are looking for drill and formulaic solutions, hence when confronted with a novel case they give up. From reading their work, listening to their explanations and examining the diagrams they construct in their assignments, it appears to me that many do not know how to get started. They have no modus operandi for dealing with a new situation.

Many students arrive at university without the basic skills and background they need to study Physics at a first year university level (Mills and Sharma 2005, McCarthy et al 2010). This is a significant problem because it impacts on student success in majors that include the first year Physics unit/course as a core subject. This problem is also observed in the United States as evidenced in the American National Research Council (NRC) paper “Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering”, which states, “Completion rates for all undergraduate students, including whites and Asians, are significantly lower in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics than in other disciplines” (2012 pp8).

While it is possible to supply remedial material and expect students to catch-up in their own time, this does not always work, possibly because students do not know what they do not know, nor what skills they must acquire in order to succeed. The NRC (2012) identified the issues as follows:

To gain expertise in science and engineering, students must learn the knowledge, techniques, and standards of each field. However, across the disciplines, the committee found that students have incorrect understandings about fundamental concepts, particularly those that involve very large or very small temporal and spatial scales. Moreover, as novices in a domain, students are challenged by important aspects of the domain that can seem easy or obvious to experts, such as problem solving and understanding domain-specific representations like graphs, models, and simulations. These challenges pose serious impediments to learning (NRC 2012 pp2-3).

I wish to build a community of higher education scholars who use the WIO materials to model for their students the basic skills, activities and thought processes that experts employ as a matter of course. Then, by the use of well-focused formative assessment, they can encourage their students to emulate what it is that the experts are doing when they work within the discourse of the discipline which include algorithms, graphs, models, and simulations. These forms of communication often seem obvious to experts, but become serious stumbling blocks for novices in the domain (NRC 2012 pp191).

The WIO activities will be focused in the physics discipline, as this is my area of expert knowledge and where my main teaching duties lie. There is potential, however, for the underlying principles to be adapted for other content areas.

The teaching resources will be a range of short videos of experts modelling for the student how to go about an activity while describing what they are doing and why they are doing it that way. In this way, students will be able to see and hear the thought processes of experts in their field as they work through such things as: unpacking a formula, constructing a diagram, reading a textbook, designing an experiment, analysing  data and learning new material.

The WIO teaching strategy requires the teacher to create authentic situations where the students have to perform a task they have not done before or one that they may have done without full understanding of what they were doing and why. For example, the student activity could be giving a mini-lecture on unpacking a formula, which could be run during a tutorial session. It is not expected that the students will be able to do this in the way that an expert would, so as a group they are asked to watch a video of an expert unpacking a formula. While they are watching they are asked to identify all of the ways that the expert uses to explain the formula. These will include, but will not be limited to the following;

  • Identification of the focus of the formula and hence it’s associate background knowledge.
  • Identification of the basic assumptions underlying the formula, the boundaries and limitations within which the formula holds true.
  • Diagrammatical/graphical/metaphorical/symbolic representations.
  • Giving examples/counterexamples.
  • Extending the formula so that it can operate in situations outside the boundaries and limitations that were imposed by the basic assumptions.
  • Applying the formula to other situations.

In a plenary session the teacher whiteboards the ways the expert uses to unpack the formula and any more subtle aspects of the presentation that helped get the message across, e.g., gestures or voice inflection. Then in small groups the students will then be asked to develop similar presentations for one of the formulas they are currently working within their studies. Several formulas are presented this way in one session accompanied by their scaffolding. As all the formulas are in the same discipline area, the students will be discussing the same material and the links between the material that each group presents can be teased out by the teacher if they are not obvious. This helps the students chunk the material as well as scaffold it.

The activities that I propose to develop as part of this fellowship can be used to help students improve their quantitative skills, communication skills and literacy within their discipline, all of which will improve their chances of achieving the Australian National Threshold Learning Outcomes for science, as well as the Graduate Attributes of their University and the Discipline Outcome Statements.

References

National Research Council, USA (2012). Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. Editors: S.R. Singer, N.R. Nielsen, and H.A. Schweingruber

Committee on the Status, Contributions, and Future Directions of Discipline-Based Education Research. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioural and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Mills, D., Sharma, M. (Project Leaders) (2005) Learning Outcomes and Curriculum Development in Physics: A report on tertiary physics learning and teaching in Australia commissioned by the Australian Universities Teaching Committee, Office of Learning and Teaching, Australia. ISBN: 0-7326-2063-5. http://www.physics.usyd.edu.au/super/AUTC/autc/