Physics Fright Night

In the summer term, I teach an introductory physics class. It’s an interesting class to teach because of the students who choose to take it over the summer. The summer format is very compressed, and the students get two three-hour classes in the evening, from 6.35–9.35 pm. They also have a three hour lab session during the week. The whole thing is over within eight weeks. So who chooses to take this course?

Mostly students who have been putting off taking a mandatory physics course for as long as possible. The typical student will be studying biological sciences or neurosciences. Several aspire to enter medical school, or veterinary school, or another clinical discipline. They need a good grade. They are extremely motivated students, who are already skilled scientists in another discipline. They produce lab reports which make lab-coordinators weep with their perfection. They perform significantly better than the general intake of students coming straight from high school, in the Fall and Winter terms, as they should.

They are also terrified of physics. I always carry out a pre-class survey before we start, and at least half of the students admit to being frightened or very frightened of taking the course. Many of them have been postponing the evil day for as long as possible. Why should this be? Why should a cohort of extremely bright and competent students have such negative feelings towards physics? I can only suggest that somewhere in the school system, the joy of doing physics, as opposed to other sciences, is somehow purged from them. Whether it’s the mathematical content, or the high school curriculum, or the way it’s taught in school, we have it all wrong. Would we expect half the students to be terrified of a Social Sciences class? History? Gender Studies? No, we would not. And intellectually, there is absolutely nothing to choose between any of them. Somewhere, physics (and I strongly suspect mathematics too) have been labelled as “Very Difficult” and “Not For Most Students”. This is completely false, of course, but it’s a very difficult label to remove, rather like price tags on paperback books.

So what do I do to combat this fear and loathing in physics classes?

  1. Use the pre-class survey answers to set up a FAQ list for all students. The survey is anonymous, so I post some of the student comments on the class discussion forum, so that everyone can see them. Then I answer those comments, to reassure the students
  2. Identify areas of weakness in useful skills, and introduce resources to the students before class starts. Typically, this is an “Algebra Tune-Up” before the class starts, with some practice questions to try, and solutions given. After the second class, there is a “Trigonometry Tune-Up”. That covers a lot of the difficulties students have in the class. It’s not the physics concepts that cause difficulties, it’s a lack of practice in some key areas of mathematics. For my students this may be due to them being several years out of high school, although the same deficiencies are seen during the regular term, with recent high school graduates. Not enough practice in basic algebra, geometry and trigonometry. If there are any high school careers advisers out there, please, encourage anyone interested in any science degree to keep up with their mathematics studies in high school. It will save them a world of grief later.
  3. Verbally encourage the class. I always tell the class that everyone sitting there can pass the course. Of course they can. I wouldn’t be teaching it if I didn’t believe that.
  4. Provide plenty of low-stakes testing, with as much feedback as possible. Lots of little tests, both on-line and written. This is a bottleneck, as there are typically over a hundred and thirty students in the class. I can’t mark everything, so I have to have a teaching assistant to help out.
  5. Structure the grades so that the final exam counts for relatively little. In the summer, it’s 35% of the final exam. The laboratory is also 35%, and the rest in on-line and written tests. For the tests, I use the grades from the top four of five. Everyone gets another chance if they have a bad day. In an evening class, when many of the students are also working at a full-time job, this is absolutely necessary.
  6. Try to show them that I’m enjoying teaching the class. It’s not at a great time, and this year it’s being held in one of my least favourite lecture theatres in an engineering building. Never, ever, let engineers design teaching spaces. They are horrible at it. Nevertheless, a positive attitude and leadership from the teacher is utterly essential.

Usually, I can get most of the students through the course. The pass rate, for those who stick it out, is good. Some cannot manage the time commitment, given their work, and drop out. But most stay with it, and end up with a good grade.

But High Schools. Please do a better job of preparing our young people for University. They should not be scared or intimidated by a subject.