Sep 1, 2011

Discussion Physics

This is a very exciting day for me because the September issue of The Physics Teacher came in the mail... Most exciting of all, a column I wrote on using handouts to teach effective note-taking in my ninth-grade physics class is printed in this issue! If you're a subscriber to The Physics Teacher, the column is on page 396 of Issue Number 6 of Volume 49, or you can read it here. If you're not a subscriber, you should be!! (You can subscribe to TPT here.)

The "For the New Teacher" column, organized by Patricia Blanton of Watauga High School, is intended to provide helpful tips for anyone new to physics teaching, and to help all physics teachers expand their thinking to include creative new methods. My column suggests a way to use Notes Outline handouts to provide a hierarchical structure to help students think about new concepts and methods in their science class, and be aware of how these concepts are presented over the course of a class discussion. Here is an excerpt from the column: 

Taking conscientious notes in a science class is a skill that's crucial for a student's success, yet students rarely receive direct instruction on how to do this... A sophisticated note taker must simultaneously recognize the role of new ideas and examples in the hierarchy of information of the class, and identify which pieces of information will be most valuable to have recorded... In my Notes Outline handouts... [questions that will be the focus of class discussion] are highlighted in sections marked Notes on Discussion... Students are expected to [record any arguments or examples from this discussion] that will help them answer a similar question later on... Isolating the most sophisticated and personalized form of note taking in these Notes on Discussion sections allows students to focus on and practice this technique specifically.

One aspect of these Notes on Discussion sections that I did not elaborate on in this column was the role they play in the labs that I've written for use in my course. Taking a cue from the fantastic Physics by Inquiry books, (by Lillian C. McDermott and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington) I like to structure student discussion of a complicated idea by offering excerpts from a discussion on this topic between fictional students.

Here is an example of how Physics by Inquiry structures a student discussion about batteries and bulbs:

Consider the following dispute between two students.Student 1: "The current through the battery in each circuit is the same. In the circuit on the right the current from the battery is divided between the two bulbs - so each bulb has half the current through it that the bulb in the circuit on the left has through it."

Student 2: "We know that the current through each of the bulbs in the circuit on the right is the same as through the bulb in the circuit on the left. That's because the bulbs are all about the same brightness - and bulbs that are equally bright have the same current through them. So the flow through the battery in the circuit on the right is more than through the battery in the circuit on the left."

Do you agree with Student 1 or Student 2?
(Physics by Inquiry Vol II, McDermott & P.E.G., 1996)

I fell in love with this method of structuring lab discussions the moment I first saw it. Giving words to common student misconceptions is an excellent way to bring these misconceptions out into the open so that students must face the concrete implications of such thinking directly. I have found that asking a complicated question outright in a lab handout is ineffective, as students' responses are often brief, hasty, and poorly thought through. With the structure of a fictional discussion, however, students will often collectively reach a correct conclusion through discussion in their lab group, even if no individual student could clarify a correct response on their own. Furthermore, these passages from fictional students provide opportunities to model effective argumentation in science - emphasizing for students the importance of supporting claims with data and defending the relevance of these data as evidence of the claim.

In my labs, the Notes on Discussion prompts remind students that they have a responsibility during lab not only are they expected to participate in these discussion, but they must also record whatever they'll need to recall the details of this discussion later on when they look back over their lab notes. I've posted an example of a lab on Newton's Third Law that uses these Notes on Discussion prompts extensively
here. I like this example because it demonstrates how Notes on Discussion can be used to structure both discussions within small lab groups and discussions that include input from the entire class. I have started to make some handouts that I developed for use in my own class available on the web here, but this project is far from finished. You are welcome to use anything you find on this page in your own class, but please write me an email to tell me that you're using it, and please give me feedback on how these resources worked for you.

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