Lunch With Three Former Students

This past Wednesday, I was invited to lunch with three former students. Two of these student took calculus-based physics with me; the third took first semester general astronomy with me. Of the first two, one (I will call him B) transferred to a nearby university after the first semester of physics and is majoring in mechanical engineering. The second (I will call him H) transferred to another state university campus and is triple majoring in physics, mathematics, and philosophy. The third student (I will call him M) has not transferred to a four-year school yet.

For some reason this (calendar) year, I have received a large number of emails from former students telling me how they are doing after transferring out of two-year college into a four-year environment and how much they appreciate the background they got in my classes.The common thread from students is that the way I structure my courses is a big reason they are doing will now. (I need to be very careful here becuase some will accuse me of claiming superiority over all others; it’s happened before and I must emphasize that that is NOT what I’m doing and have no remote intention of doing that.)

In my mind, the ultimate “assessment” (ugh how I hate that word nowadays) of my effectiveness as a teacher isn’t how many students enroll in my courses or how they perform on a given test. It is instead how my students do AFTER they transfer to a four-year institution and pursue their intended major. If they do well, then I consider myself to have done well in helping to get them there, at least in some small way. Unfortunately, something so simple doesn’t seem to be acceptable to administrators nowadays because it’s not readily quantifiable. I’m told that ANY positive feedback from students must be treated as being given under duress (yes, we were actually told that by a recently retired dean) and is therefore unreliable. I don’t understand how an administrator can be so blind.

Anyway, I have consistently been told by former students, and not just these three, that having a classroom enviroment where students can actually talk about physics, astronomy, and science and mathematics in general is a huge help in overcoming the stresses of traditional learning. B explicitly echoed this during lunch, saying that it was THE most important thing that has helped him. Talking about the physics helped him to understand it more than just working textbook problems. Given that B is an undergraduate taking a graduate course in analytical mechanics that emphasizes geometric methods, I assume he is telling the truth. More than once, H has told me that Matter & Interactions, together with beginning the course with special relativity prepared him well for his courses in modern physics, classical mechanics (Taylor), and classical electrodynamics (Griffiths). While M has not yet transferred, he echoed the same basic sentiments and now intends to take second semester astronomy next semester.

This lunch meeting was especially timely becuase last weekend, I attended the fall NCS-AAPT meeting at UNC-Asheville. Keynote speaker Gabriel Periz-Giz began his talk by saying that we need to devote more class time to actually talking about physics, not lecturing or doing silly and irrelevant labs or working sanitized textbook problems. He pointed out that he uses classroom time to present and discuss poorly framed problems (and he gave us an example from an AP C test) and even problem for which erroneous solutions have been published. Gabe also lamented the inertia that keeps these classroom discussions from happening so as to maintain the status quo of “covering material” regardless of whether or not students eventually understand anything.

My takeaway from all this is that I’m doing some things right and I’m apparently not harming students or impeding their success after they transfer. I take this as permission to keep doing this and to keep looking for ways to refine this approach in spite of the naysayers. I hope I’m right.



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