Matter & Interactions I, Week 14

I had planned to go into chapter 7 this week, but decided not to because no one in the class had begun working on their solution portfolio, a part of which is due at the end of this week. So I decided to let students use the class time to work on their portfolios.

The portfolios consist of problem solutions, both “regular” problems and computational problems, written up in LaTeX using Overleaf. For each chapter, I provided a list of problems from which students must select three. One of the three problems must be a computational problem. The problems are usually of medium to high difficulty (indicated by two and three dots respectively in the textbook) except in the early chapters where the problems are simpler and require more numerical effort than in later chapters (e.g. calculating a relativistic particle’s momentum). These are not trivial problems by any measure. I see students productively struggle with them and it’s wonderful to see the lights come on as they see the underlying physics.

We are behind where I would like the class to be at this point so I felt extremely guilty about using class time this way. However, I heard students say two things this week that encouraged me. One student said that he’d learned more from working on the portfolio this week than he had in all the previous weeks. Great! Still, students have ostensibly been working on problem sets all along (via WebAssign) and surely something was learned from that, at least by the students who actually did them. Another student said…get this…that “LaTeX is easier to learn than Microsoft Excel.” In at least one previous class, he’d been required to prepare PDF documents of some sort using Excel and he found that extremely difficult. He says LaTeX is far simpler for him. I never saw that coming.

I feel encouraged that students see the value in learning LaTeX because they’re already talking about how they will use it once they transfer to their four year institution of choice. I’m also encouraged by the fact that students are actually working the problems correctly. The mast majority of errors I’m seeing are LaTeX errors, but that’s good because it forces them to learn the LaTeX and hopefully makes them realize that taking a physics course isn’t just about learning from a physics textbook, even a great one like Matter & Interactions.

Despite the encouragement, the constant internal battle with “covering mass quantities of material” in the spirit of Halliday, Resnick, and Walker is always present. I cringe when I hear colleagues say that reformed textbooks like M&I are just smokescreens and don’t constitute “real physics.” I laugh and shake my head in confusion when I hear PhD colleagues say that M&I has a learning curve that is too hard for them…for THEM. Think about that…PhDs are supposedly the most highly accomplished members of our community and are, in most people’s words, ultimately qualified for any academic task and yet they find insurmountable difficulty in adopting a new approach to teaching introductory (INTRODUCTORY!) physics? Give me the proverbial break! As instructors, are we not more or less required to do what is best for our students regardless of any minor difficulty that may impose on us? If nothing else, it provides ample evidence that persons with so-called “terminal degrees” in the discipline seem to think that “terminal” applies to learning, at least on their part. If not that, then at least that they’re not always the best choice for teaching introductory physics.

Okay, well, I didn’t expect to go there so let’s just pretend that I didn’t. My point is that I’m consistently torn between “covering material” and doing what’s best for my students, because these two options don’t always overlap.

Comments and feedback are welcome as always.

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