So, what constitutes a good physics course?

This is what we talk about a great deal of the day in my office up in the farthest corner (quite literally) of my school. (I saw one school map, which a friendly colleague once gave me, with the admonition “There be monsters here”, and my office circled. It is over a quarter mile by my estimates to get to my office from the main office (not that this is always bad). But I long digress!

The traditional senior physics class at our school has likely changed little in coverage in 40 years:

  • introduction
  • kinematics
  • forces/Newton’s Laws
  • mechanical energy
  • projectile motion
  • circular motion
  • general wave phenomena
  • sound waves
  • EM waves
  • electrostatics
  • electric circuits
  • magnetism/eletrodynamics


Education today, however is vastly different … some in good ways, some in not so good ways. Nonetheless, the days of 45 minutes of lecture for five days are over. I rarely lecture today. Most of the class is lab, lab analysis, and problem review. The problem though is that less and less of the class is “stuff you do at home”, and more and more of the class is “stuff you do in class”.

The problem: we’re trying to teach all of that stuff up there, which fit neatly in a year 40 years ago, into a modern course that really doesn’t have time.Some of my colleagues take what I call the “shallow plow” approach: teach just a little bit, because otherwise they will never get it anywhere else, and call it a day.

I call it a waste of time. The kids really don’t have a prayer with long term recall.My opinion is a more “slash and burn” approach. Tradition be damned here! We need to seriously cut topics out (how big? give me a minute). With what’s left, construct a course that really addresses the deepest misconceptions that students have, and take the time to really have a transformative effect.

I seriously proposed dropping all of the wave phenomena from the course. It is the least associated with the other phenomena. One can study basic circuits without understanding sound. I support keeping electricity because it is the entire basis of our modern technology.There’s been ongoing hemming and hawing, and then I found someone who agreed with me.

Phil Sadler is a legend in science education. First off he’s not a Ded (Doctors of Education ….always beware!) head … he’s an honest to goodness real live genuine scientist .. professor of astrophysics at Harvard. He happens to be rather passionately involved in improving science education.

One of his most recent studies (I can’t find the original article, so I found a summary here from a University of Maine lecture:

Sadler looked at college physics students, and asked “What do the successful students have in common?” His findings were pretty astounding, because they fly in the face of what a lot of the other so called “assumptions” of modern education are:

  •  textbooks generally don’t help much
  • liking the teacher doesn’t help much (that’s a biggy!)
  • students who never learned E&M or waves faired better than those who did
  • students who covered fewer topics in high school faired better
  • students who did fewer than 4 labs per month did better

  • That’s pretty amazing! I am going to try and take this to my chair, but she doesn’t seem to have a lot of faith in suggestions that I make these days.


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