Something Old, Something New

Ideas more or less related to teaching and learning physics at Luther College.

This week I have been reading the course evaluations and reflecting a bit on the Astronomy course from last fall. At times in this space I have ranted about phrases that people use or overuse – see the “re-inventing the wheel” bit. As I ponder this course that I have taught so many times, I can’t help but recall what people used to say a lot – “A definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I always thought, “I suppose that is A definition for the word, not a good one, but one.” Given our ever-evolving world and, heck, just random chance it might be more appropriate to claim that doing something the same way repeatedly and expecting the exact same outcome is the result of being non-observant. While the heart of the Astronomy course remains largely the same it does evolve with everything else. This past fall at least three things were a little different.

The first thing we did differently was that I asked every enrolled student to come see me for an individual 15 minute meeting before the course started. This was just a howdy meeting. We talked about what they were interested in, their goals for the course, whatever. I liked it but it was a lot of meetings squeezed into 3 days, along with everything else going on. We got off to a better start, I think, knowing each other a bit and I hope students were more comfortable coming to the office right away. This is one we will probably do again although the general busyness of life might get in the way, particularly if the course enrollment swells back up near 70 or 80.

Another difference this year is that we used clickers a lot more. In the past we didn’t always have enough clickers for this course. One advantage of clickers is that in a big class one learns what students are struggling with and immediate intervention is possible. After a couple decades at this I don’t really need that input. I know what they will struggle with. But I think they were often surprised by the results that popped onto the screen and it helped discussion flow.

Finally we come back to the course evaluations. Often there is not much new for me to learn there. I have a pretty good idea they will tell me the course is hard and the exams are way too hard. This year, however, I added a question to our standard form. I asked them to reflect on what practical skills or ideas they might have honed in this seemingly impractical course, skills that they could apply to future courses or life after college. In the spirit of full disclosure I note that I did this more for their benefit than mine. I thought that two minutes of such reflection might help them internalize some ways they had grown. What startled me was how much they wrote, how willing they were to engage this question. The breadth of what they wrote surprised me as well and it has me thinking about ways to strengthen certain aspects of the course. It’s a “see the world with new eyes” moment for me, at least slightly new eyes. Ahhh, I love the smell of the ever-evolving world in the morning.

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