Spring semester is now underway.

January 29, 2011

We’re at the end of the third week of spring semester. 38 bright new shining faces, two lectures, three labs. So far, things are starting out pretty fantastically — I seem to have a good group of students. They’ve been enjoying the labs, enduring the lectures (three hours is an awfully long time, no matter what you’re doing), and (mostly) doing the optional homework!

One of the things I realized partway through last semester was that even though the homework was un-graded and “optional”, it was putting too much pressure on the students’ self-discipline to just tell them “Work on the problems at the end of the chapter. Do as much homework as you need to.” Unfortunately, homework took a back-seat last fall, as most of my time was spent creating and grading new assessments. This semester, I have (at least so far) broken it down into reasonable, bite-sized, chunks; about 10 book-problems each, about 2/week. Some reading-ahead assigned for the next lecture. Problems that are perhaps based in the real-world (well, my real world in any case, based on problems I’ve actually needed to solve, and road-trips I’ve recently taken.)

My strong suits: creating interesting, useful, instructional labs; engaging, do-able homework assignments (maybe? I hope? At least I’ve got lab going for me). I have fooled some number of them into believing that this will be an interesting class — and it may well be. But the point is that they’re willing to think so now. This is not always the case in an introductory physics class populated primarily with students planning for a medical-based degree.

Weakness: Lecture.
I may need to come to grips with the idea that I am not a good lecturer. I have a hard time finding a balance between expecting the students to do some pre-reading and have a basic grasp of the material, and knowing that many students won’t do any prep and have no idea what I’m talking about if I jump ahead of defining our basic tools, straight into what to do with them. Ending up somewhere in the middle bores the prepared students and continues to confuse the unprepared.

I have a hard time trusting that the class will stick to the topic and have a worthwhile discussion if I pose a problem and ask them to figure it out.

I have yet to actually go for a Shawn Cornally-/Dan Meyer-type inquiry lecture. I know it ought to be easy, if physics is really based in the “real world,” as we claim it is. I’m working on it. For now, we may have to stick with worksheets. Hey, even Dan once thought they were the bee’s knees, right?

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