Prof. Natasha Holmes

Professor Paula Heron, University of Washington, presents her Physics Education Research findings to Cornell faculty and students

March 29, 2019

How Can Students Most Effectively Learn Physics?

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Any Cornell student who has taken physics class may have wondered at some point: “what makes physics so difficult to understand?”

While students may be asking this out of frustration, Prof. Paula Heron, physics, University of Washington and the Cornell Physics Education Research Lab are pursuing answers to these questions in order to improve their classrooms and help their students succeed.

Heron, who is the co-founder of the “Foundations and Frontiers in Physics Education Research” conference series, gave a lecture Monday afternoon to a room full of physics professors, faculty staff, teaching assistants and students about the problems facing physics educators and the findings of the various physics education research groups.

One concept that educators like Heron have recently addressed is the dual process theories of reasoning, which suggests that humans often process knowledge in two different ways, one being a fast, automatic, “intuitive” process, and the other slower, more deliberate and reflective.

To get an idea of what this means, take a look at this Cognitive Reflection Test question:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

Was there a difference between your immediate answer and the answer you concluded was correct? The correct answer is $0.05, not $0.10 — although the latter is more intuitive — which you would get from subtracting $1 from $1.10.

Although physics questions look slightly different, there still exists a difference between students’ intuition and their more reflective answers on tests.

Although physics questions look slightly different, researchers found that many students still rely on intuitive approaches when answering even basic questions. That’s because they have trouble incorporating taught knowledge with preexisting ideas and intuition about concepts, which requires a slow, deliberate approach, researchers say.

The study also suggests that it was not that students were not reasoning through the problems; rather, they seemed to have trouble knowing when to apply new knowledge and how.

Sruti Vutukury ’21, a mechanical engineering student who has taken both introductory mechanics and electromagnetism here at Cornell, says she “almost never [goes] with [her] gut in STEM classes,” and “always [relies] on methodical problem-solving and analytical checks to solve problems on tests and homeworks.” She also mentions feeling that her knowledge “had a lot of breadth, but not a lot of depth.”

Heron said she developed her initial interest in physics education while being a teaching assistant and noticing that there were simple questions even students with good grades could not answer.

“Students have developed an algorithmic ability to solve problems rather than understanding. They can now get good grades without grasping fundamental concepts,” Heron said.

Heron suggests that students make mistakes as a result of imperfect ideas and failure to override intuition rather than an actual lack of knowledge.

Prof. Philip Krasicky ’90, physics, who teaches PHYS 1112: Mechanics and Heat, also agrees that educators are still figuring out the most effective way for students to learn.

“Evidence-based research is a valuable resource for helping decide the best ways to teach,” Krasicky said.

Krasicky believes it may be helpful for students to be aware of how intuitive thinking affects their understanding of course material. As an instructor, he hopes to “find ways to help learners recognize when it happens and how they can use it productively, without undermining the value of intuition.”

Physics Education Research is by no means an easy field of research. Researchers must still identify possible variables such as test settings, the way questions are asked and the students’ own biases in experiments. However, the field is slowly growing more popular.

In the meantime, Heron encourages any stressed out physics students to reflect on their own thinking: “Monitor the process you’re going through — why did I think that was the right answer? Did I think it was right just because of this?”