What equation do I need?

By Marcus Wilson 10/06/2010

With A-semester exams looming, the students here at Waikato are becoming a little more focused on their work. That inevitably means that I get more of them coming to me after a lecture, or knocking on the door of my office. And that is good.

One of the most common questions I get, usually in relation to an assignment, or a past exam paper, is ‘What equation do I need to solve this?’. I have slowly come to the conclusion (by slow, I mean six years) that when a student says this he actually means the following:

1. I don’t understand this

2. But I don’t mind that I don’t understand, I just need to know what to do to answer the question (and pass the assignment, exam etc.)

It’s the second one that is interesting. Any person can put numbers into an equation and come up with an answer, but it doesn’t necessarily add to their understanding. But unfortunately it can add to their ability to pass examinations, which is what drives students. And giving students that understanding  is part of what teaching a Bachelor of Science degree is about. Without it, a student cannot hope to apply learning to new situations. Remember, that is what real scientists (e.g. physicists) do. No-one gets a science job that involves putting numbers into well established formulae. For example, our graduate profile for a BSc degree says a BSc graduate should have

 "Skills, knowledge and attributes needed to contribute directly and constructively to specific aspects of the building of a science based knowledge economy in New Zealand"
That is what I need to be building in my students – the ability to do just this. It is the scientist who will drive the economy forward and solve the world’s major problems. Will our BSc graduates be able to embark down this path? Sure, a lot of science learning occurs after a BSc, but a BSc shows that someone is reasonably compentent in their use of science, enough to contribute positively. How can you contribute positively if you don’t care that you don’t understand something. (point 2 above).
If we produce BSc graduates who are skilled in putting numbers into formulae and nothing else we are devaluing the BSc, denying the country good scientists (and therefore harming the economy) and short-changing the tax payer who gives the majority of the money to the universities to educate students. So when I get asked ‘What equation do I need’ I need to stop and think? – What does the student really want, and is it in his best interests (and the country’s) to give him that?

N.B. I could also say the point is that we, the teachers, need to set decent assignments, that mean stuffing-numbers-into-formulae isn’t sufficient to pass.

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