What are some of the strategies that you use in courses to engage students?
I like to use conversation and interaction in my classes. In my large class I use clickers, and in my small class I try to arrange the material so that it leads students to take the next step themselves. For example, in a recent class I talked about the way that musical instruments radiate sound. I deliberately presented the theory in an abstract way and then asked them, “How can we make the connection between this theory and a particular musical instrument? Which of the examples I have just given apply here?” This approach sparked a conversation, so the students became engaged. When I finally came down on one side rather than the other, I could sense that there had been some thinking and learning because they had committed to one answer or another.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
In physics courses, it is very difficult to do much other than ask students to solve problems, so the real challenge is to choose good problems—or develop your own as I have over the years—that actually make students think. The worst kind of assessment problem is what the physics community calls “plug & chug”: when you find a formula, plug the numbers into it, and chug, chug, chug, the answer comes out the other end. The brain isn’t engaged at all, and in many ways, these problems give a totally false impression of what science is all about. Science is not a collection of formulae and a machine for spitting out numbers, so if you use those kinds of problems exclusively, some memorization may take place but very little actual learning.
In my small class, I also ask students to write projects. This is fairly unusual for a physics course because the language we usually speak is mathematics. But I tell students that mathematics isn’t everything, and it is explicitly stated on each assignment that they will get points for showing their reasoning, even if the answer is wrong. I also want the teaching assistants to look for evidence that students are actually thinking—hence the importance of TA training.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
Students learn that science, and physics in particular, is a way of describing and understanding the world; it’s an ongoing activity rather than just a collection of facts. There is a huge core of received wisdom about physics, a lot of which has been unchanged for 100 years. Because much of what we do is to try to get students to understand that core, it is actually very hard to go beyond that and demonstrate that physics is not just an academic exercise, and that it actually has some relevance in the real world.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
In physics, it is very hard to help students understand what research is because the research frontier is so far away from the undergraduate experience. Students can be put in labs, and the best of them may participate in the development of ideas, but understanding what is happening, for example, why the professor is building a piece of equipment or analyzing particular data is much more challenging. My physics research over the years has been theoretical, but for the most part, undergraduate students will not encounter the research or techniques I use during their undergraduate careers. When talking about nanoscience, for example, even understanding the existing pieces of the puzzle can be challenging for an undergraduate, let alone identifying the part of the puzzle that is unsolved, wrongly identified, or not yet in place.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
I recommend that new faculty take the course design workshop offered by Teaching & Learning Services. I took this workshop, and it was a very significant step for me. I had not realized that there were actually people out there who think about these things—that there are people who have expertise, who know about strategies that work, and who have written about teaching. These ideas are perhaps more sophisticated than the kinds of things that you make up for yourself as you progress in your academic life.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
I tell students that most of their learning probably doesn’t happen in the classroom. It is not just a question of memorizing a bunch of stuff. Memorizing is certainly part of it, but I recommend students take the material from me, from the textbook or from wherever, and put it together in their own ways. They should ask their own questions and make their own connections.
Why do you teach?
I teach because it’s fun. Every so often, you see the proverbial light bulb go on, and this is extremely rewarding. I also think that we have a responsibility for producing scientifically literate citizens. It’s a sort of global imperative for any science educator. This is one of the reasons why over the years I’ve been so involved in various advisory committees on education outside of McGill. I think it is important that those of us involved in education make sure that the understanding we have is made available to the general population, whether it be in primary schools or to PhDs.
Photo by Owen Egan
Science is not a collection of formulae and a machine for spitting out numbers
…science, and physics in particular, is a way of describing and understanding the world…