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Here’s a summary of a conversation I had with a student in a lab yesterday.  I can’t remember the exact words, but it went something along these lines:

Student (showing me some work): Is this right?

Me: What do you think?

Student: I don’t know

Me: Well, is there anything about it that makes you suspect that it isn’t right?

Student: No

Me: So do you think you’ve done it correctly? – I mean, what about it suggests that it’s doing what is should be doing?

Student: I don’t know. Is it right?

And round in circles we went.  I think from the student’s point of view, he was just unconfident in his ability. But what I was trying to do was to get the student to take the initiative with assessing his own work.  It’s all very easy for me to say ‘Yeah, that’s right’, but I suspect if I did my student would be learning nothing from it. Someone doing physics in ‘the real world’ will have to make their own judgements on whether they have done a task correctly. Knowing what to expect, and how things should behave, is a key step to doing any kind of laboratory or modelling work. Put another way, if you are selling a product you need to be able to recognize if it’s faulty. Too often we set students activities that lead them to think that they can always look up the answer in a textbook, website, or get model answers from a teacher, etc – i.e. take away the need for them to do any independent thinking and critically assess their own work.  

So, in a lab situation, with an unconfident student, I am reluctant to say ‘yeah, that looks right to me’ without the student first thinking about whether it looks right to him or herself. It’s probably infuriating for the student, who probably just wants me to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but I am sure they will learn more if I don’t.