You think physics is hard? Try teaching. -Gina Passante

Yesterday I attended Prof. Eric Mazur’s lecture entitled “Memorization or understanding: are we teaching the right thing?” As a physicist with an interest in physics education, I was quite excited to hear Prof. Mazur speak. He is well known in physics education as the founder of Peer Instruction, which is a formalized method of using think-pair-share activity in a university physics classroom. Without going into any of the details – or regurgitating what Prof. Mazur said, I want to share with you some of my reflections from the talk.

It is a prevalent myth that teaching is telling.  However, as all teachers know, creating a really good, interactive, thoughtful, yet informative lecture (let alone an entire course) takes a lot of time.  So why do we do it?  Why do we put so much time and energy into creating a great lecture, when we could get away with producing something of lesser quality?  I imagine that each of us has a slightly different, although similar, motivator, but I was struck by something Prof. Mazur said in his lecture: “I felt challenged.”

This was his response after learning that his undergraduate physics students experience little gain in their comprehension of basic physics concepts.  Like most of us, Prof. Mazur’s first thoughts were that his students were different and there must be some flaws in this result.  So he designed a few of his own tests, and sure enough, he found that his students did not learn anywhere near as much as he had thought.  Sure, they could solve exam questions and get good marks, but did they understand the physics?  Prof. Mazur is a very successful physics researcher at Harvard, and yet he was challenged by teaching his first year physics class!

I don’t know about you, but I am motivated by a challenge.  Each time I plan a lecture I have a challenge in front of me to find the way to best teach this material so that I reach as many students as possible.  I often have people tell me that physics is/was way too hard for them.  Somewhere along the road, physics has gotten a stigma of being a very difficult science, and most students try to avoid it.  Not only am I saddened by this, but I think it is completely false.  Sure, physics has its difficulties just like any other subject, but I believe it is something anyone can learn.  This is my challenge.  Can I teach physics so that students come out of the course, not only having enjoyed the experience, but with some knowledge or skills that can be transferred to the rest of their life?  I expect this to be a lifelong goal – but I’m excited by the challenge!

I think that each of us has a unique challenge that motivates us to continually improve our teaching.  What’s yours?


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Gina is a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy where she studies quantum information processing at the Institute for Quantum Computing. Prior to her studies at UW she completed the Certificate of Advanced Studies in Mathematics (a course-based Master's program) at the University of Cambridge and she received her Bachelor's degree in Physics from the University of Winnipeg, which is located in her hometown. In addition to taking the Certificate in University Teaching at UW she has been a TA at the University of Winnipeg, a TA and guest lecturer at the University of Waterloo, and has taught MCAT preparatory courses for the past three years.

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