What makes research-based teaching methods in physics work?
The PhysPort Teaching Methods pages contain guides to over 50 "research-based teaching methods" in physics. We define "teaching method" in the broadest possible sense, to include curricula, techniques, resources, tools, and reform strategies. We use "research-based teaching method" as a synonym for "interactive engagement" or "active learning" method. Meltzer and Thornton 2012 define "active learning methods" as sharing the following three features: "(1) they are explicitly based on research in the learning and teaching of physics; (2) they incorporate classroom and/or laboratory activities that require all students to express their thinking through speaking, writing, or other actions that go beyond listening and the copying of notes; (3) they have been tested repeatedly in actual classroom settings and have yielded objective evidence of improved student learning."
To implement these methods effectively, it is helpful to understand the essential features that make them work. This understanding will allow you to adapt the methods to your local environment in ways that retain these essential features. Below are some of the most important features of research-based teaching methods. Not all of the methods listed on our site use all of these features, but they do use many of them.
- Development through research: Materials are tested by observations of students using them, student interviews, and written tests of conceptual understanding. Materials are then revised in an iterative cycle based on research results.
- Constructing understanding: To deeply understand a concept, students must do the work of making sense of it for themselves.
- Active engagement: Students spend class time actively working on problems rather than listening to lectures. This enables them to do their thinking in an environment where they can get help from instructors and peers, rather than only while doing homework on their own.
- Conceptual focus: A focus on conceptual understanding rather than computation helps students to make sense of the underlying models, giving them reasoning skills that they can apply to both qualitative and quantitative problems.
- Verbalizing thinking: Students are more able to internalize new ideas if they verbalize their thinking through writing, peer discussion, responding to instructors' questions, or some combination.
- Peer discussion: Students who understand the material benefit from explaining it to others, students who do not understand the material benefit from personalized instruction from peers, and all students benefit from verbalizing their thinking.
- Group work: Working in small groups to solve problems helps students learn from their peers and allows them to solve problems that are more difficult than any one student could solve on their own.
- Model-building: Students learn how to do physics by modeling real physical systems, doing the work of deciding what approximations and assumptions to make, rather than being given simplified problems where this work has been done for them.
- Explicitly taking students' prior thinking into account: Students come into physics class with many ideas and intuitions that can interfere with or contribute to their ability to understand the content of the class. Instruction is more effective if it starts from these ideas and guides students towards a correct understanding, rather than starting with the correct physics ideas phrased in ways that don't connect with students' current understanding.
- Confronting student difficulties: Research has identified many common student difficulties that interfere with learning of physics. Addressing these difficulties directly helps students to overcome them.
- Building on students' productive resources: Students have many intuitions and ideas that are not necessarily correct or incorrect, but can be refined to form the basis of a correct understanding. Instruction elicits these ideas and guides students to refine them productively.
- Socratic dialog: One method of helping students construct their own understanding is for instructors to ask them questions to guide them, rather than telling them the answers.
- Commitment to an answer: Asking students to predict the results of experiments helps them commit to an idea and therefore be more likely to remember if the results do not match their expectations.
- Formative assessment: Instructors find out what their students are thinking and modify instruction to respond accordingly.
- Rapid feedback: Students get feedback on their thinking while it is happening and are guided to use that feedback to modify their thinking.
- Multiple representations: Using many different representations (e.g. words, pictures, graphs, equations) for the same problem allows students to understand concepts more deeply and in a less context-dependent way.
- Organizing knowledge: Instruction helps students to organize their knowledge into a coherent structure of interrelated ideas so that they have the resources to figure out how to solve novel problems.
- Metacognition: Students are encouraged to explicit reflect on their own thinking process in order to learn how to figure things out.
- Explicitly addressing epistemology: "Epistemology" is the study of what it means to know. If we want students to learn that physics is a coherent framework that they can use to make sense of the real world, rather than a random collection of facts handed down by authority, instruction must explicitly address what it means to know in physics.