Teaching Learning Philosophy

Many students in my courses quickly realize that I do not believe in traditional lecturing. In order to remove confusion, I have created this page. This page gives an outline of why I teach the way I do. It includes what I think learning is and what I think students should do to learn. You should know that I have not just made this stuff up - most of this comes from research-based studies on student learning. The goal is to make you better learners and hopefully do better in physics.

Students have different learning styles

There are several different preferred learning styles that each student has. Some may learn better by looking at something, whereas another student may learn better by hearing something. Some students learn better by working with others, while others do better working alone. You should be aware of the different learning styles. There are several websites devoted to learning styles. Here is one. And R. Felder has extensive resources on Learning Styles. As well as an Index of Learning Styles - an online questionnaire to help you determine your learning style.

Memorization is not learning

Many students approach physics as they would some other courses that focus on memorization. While there may be some valid course that require memorization, that is not the primary goal in physics. In fact, I will not require you to even memorize the equations for the test, I will give them to you. Some students also believe that if they memorize the solutions to homework problems, they will do well on the test. While it is true that working many different homework problems will be good for you, memorizing a set will do little good. Often students that memorize problems can not even start on a problem that is only slightly different.

Learning is something that YOU do - not something that is done to you

A good analogy to learning is a gym. Say you want to get in better shape, so you join a gym. Does this in itself make you fit? Can the physical trainers make you fit? No. They can help you do the exercises, but you actually have to do the exercises yourself in order to get in shape. The same is true in school. The instructor can not make you learn, and it is not his or her job to do so. The role of the instructor is to help you learn.

The only true way to learn is by doing

Imagine trying to learn to ride a bike by going to a lecture on bike riding. Sure you could see all sorts of interesting things a skilled bike rider could do, but would be able to ride a bike after the course? If you can ride a bike, you most likely learned to do so by riding a bike. Physics is just like this. Watching an instructor do physics will do little to help you learn to do physics. So, how do you do physics? First, read the text and think about what you are reading. Do the homework and not just to get done with it, but do it to understand it. Participate in class. When you take notes, the goal is not to replicate everything I did - if that were the goal a video camera would do the job. Instead, write down key ideas and questions that come into your head.

Here is where I change the name. I am not a teacher, I am a learning facilitator. Why? Because teacher implies that I teach which implies that I do something to the students. Rather than do something to the students, I am there to help in the learning process.

You must spend time outside of class

This really goes along with the previous point about learning by doing. The problem is that many students feel that if they just show up for class they should pass the course. But, even if you attend every class you are not necessarily "doing" physics. How should you spend your time outside of class? First, read the text - before that material is "covered" in class. Second, do the homework and don't wait until the last moment to start. Third, work with other students, review material.

Your math skills are important

Unfortunately, many students do not make it through the physics courses because of their lack of math skills. There is little in the way of physics that we can do if you do not have the basic math skills. Many times students come to me for help and I realize that physics is not their problem, but rather the math. If you think you need help with math - seek out that help. There are some online math resources as well as the Student Enhancement Services. If you need a book, you can usually find older edition math books for cheap (dirt cheap). What level of math do you need? It boils down to just a few things (these are the most basic things you will need):

  • Algebraic manipulation. By this, I mean rearranging algebraic expressions to isolate a variable. This seems simple, but you would be surprised how many students have trouble with this.

  • Simple graphs. Be able to read and interpret graphs - especially linear graphs. Be able to find the equation of a straight line and the slope of a line.

  • Trig. You need to be able to deal with right triangles - thus you need to know the Pythagorean theorem, as well as the sine, cosine and tangent functions.

  • Some online hints


The lecture is not going over the text

Imagine attending a class on Shakespeare. Further imagine coming to lecture only to see the instructor reading aloud the Shakespeare play. This is what many students want in physics - but in fact that would be a waste of resources. A better way to operate a class on Shakespeare would be to have the students first read the plays and then class time can be devoted to analysis and discussion of the plays. The same is true for physics. I do not expect you to completely understand the text before class, but I do expect you to be familiar with the content. Of course, I believe that it is not beyond any college student to firmly grasp the concepts in a course by just reading a text. But if all students were good at understanding from the text, why would you need me? The appropriate use for class time will be to go over the finer details and difficult parts of the material. Also, class time can be used for more "doing" physics stuff.

The value of example problems

In the past, I have had requests to just do example problems during class and I have to some extent acknowledged these requests. It actually turns out that there is not a much value to me working problems for you as I once thought. I will work examples and for some students, this would be enough to completely grasp the materials. For most students, when I work a problem in class they think that it all makes sense, and it does. But then when they go on to do a similar problem, they don't know where to start. The best reason to work examples is so that you can learn a problem solving strategy - which is good in a variety of courses.

Telling is not learning

Often students ask questions - and that is good. But sometimes, I will not flat out give the answer. If you asked what the answer to problem #23 was and I said it was 47, they would not really help you learn. True, it may allow you to check your answer or even work backwards from the answer to find out how to do it. But that really won't help you when it comes to the test. Often when students ask questions, I will answer by asking them a question back. I do this in order to guide you through the correct thinking process in finding the answer. (Think of me as your training wheels)

What should you get out of this course?

What do I want you to be able to do after you pass this course? I do not expect for you to instantly become a physicist. But I do expect you to be familiar with the concepts covered in class. Also, I want you to increase your critical thinking skills, become more expert-like problem solvers and gain a feel for what science is and is not. I would also like you to become better at writing and reading essays. Hopefully you will be better learners as well.

Working in groups is good for everyone.

I encourage students working in groups. Research has shown that when students work in groups, everyone benefits. Those that know the material already actually learn it more by having to explain the concepts. The lower level students in a group benefit from having explanations from a peer.