Alison’s recent bioblog entry made interesting reading/listening for me – Dan Meyer talking about how traditionally-phrased physics and maths problems tend to hinder students from working things out and grasping what is important – instead it teaches ‘learned helplessness’. Real world problems don’t come in neat little packages that you can do in a few minutes in a tutorial class. Likewise, real world experiements don’t come with detailed written instructions and ‘right’ results that you can look up in a data book – in practice, we don’t do experiments that people have done before, because people have done them before, but that’s what we often load our practical classes with.
As part of my Postgrad Certificate in Tertiary Teaching work, I’m going to be stirring up my second year Experimental Physics course a bit. The idea will be to have fewer sessions where students are given instructions, and more (well, one would be a start) where they are presented with a task (e.g. verify or otherwise Child’s law for a vacuum diode), given access to the apparatus they need (and a whole lot they don’t need, just like the real world) and have to work out their own method. No lab instructions for them to blindly follow without a clue what they are doing. It’s entirely up to them to choose their experimental method.
The research literature on this says I will be in for a tough time, but the results will be that students will be better equipped for doing real-world science. And that, after all, is why they are studying for a BSc. Isn’t it?