How we teach and how students learn- A mismatch

Essay by dawood July 2004

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How we teach and how students learn - A mismatch?

During the past fifteen years, a steadily increasing number of physicists have been contributing to the growth of a new field for scholarly inquiry: the learning and teaching of physics. We have by now a rich source of documented information in the many published reports of this research. At this point, it seems reasonable to ask whether we have learned anything from this collective experience that would be useful in current efforts to bring about innovative reform in the introductory course. Results from research indicate that at all levels of instruction the difference between what is taught and what is learned is often greater than most instructors realize. This discrepancy suggests the following question: Is there a corresponding mismatch between how we teach and how students learn?

I. TRADITIONAL APPROACH TO INSTRUCTION

Instruction in introductory physics has traditionally been based on the instructor's view of the subject and the instructor's perception of the student.

Most teachers of physics are eager to transmit both their knowledge and enthusiasm. They hope that their students will acquire not only specific information and skills but also come to appreciate the beauty and power that the physicist finds in physics. Having obtained a particular insight after hours, days, months, or years of intellectual effort, they want to share this knowledge. To save students from going through the same struggles, instructors often teach from the top down, from the general to the particular. Generalizations are often fully formulated when they are introduced. Students are not actively engaged in the process of abstraction and generalization. Very little inductive thinking is involved; the reasoning is almost entirely deductive. By presenting general principles and showing how to apply them in a few special cases, instructors hope to teach students...