I had this lovely piece of written feedback in an email from a student yesterday.

I … think your emphasis on the physics rather than the math that describes it … is really good, my problem solving approach has changed from wondering what equations I have at my disposal to what’s actually going on.

What this student has hit upon is that maths can get in the way of physics. I think I’ve said it before, but I’ve found there are two common reactions students have to physics equations.

First, those who like maths (like the above student) go straight to the equations, and so can miss the point. Rearranging equations is easy if you like that kind of thing, but what does it tell you about the physics? It’s the ‘mapping-mathematics-to-meaning’ game of Tuminaro and Redish (Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 3, 020101 (2007)). But the key step in this game is to interpret what the maths is telling you about the physics. That is not always done.

The second reaction is the opposite – to see the maths and switch off, because it looks complicated. That doesn’t help either.

I have wondered whether I should experiment next year by taking a paper I teach (or part of a paper) and removing the maths entirely. Don’t have a single equation. What happens to the students’ ability to apply physics? Methinks there could be some opposition to this, which is why I would probably try it on just part of a paper to start with. Then, once the students understand what is going on, I can try re-introducing the equations.

Do I dare try it?