Compartmentalized learning?

One of the benefits of me undertaking a teaching qualification is that I am now a lot more conscious of the kinds of thought processes my students are using. (The best way to do that is to talk to them). This year I’ve noticed how ‘compartmentalized’  students’ learning appears to be. What I mean by that is that students appear to find it difficult to drag a concept from one area of physics/maths and apply it to another.

An example I had recently was that, having had students analyze a mechanical problem, they obtained a quadratic equation.  Now, all of them I’m sure, if they were just given a quadratic equation and asked to solve it in a maths class, could do it without a problem. But no-one in the class (to my knowledge) spotted that what they had was a quadratic equation, so could be solved. The mathematical concept didn’t carry across to the physical problem.

If I had more time, I’d like to analyze this a bit more.  (I’m sure others have gone down this road with their research, so there’s probably a lot written about it.) First of all, I’d really ascertain whether this is a problem, or just something I have a ‘feeling’ about.  It’s incredible how many scientists lecture based on ‘feelings’ of what their students might or might not be experiencing, without actually finding out for sure. A scientist would never do their research based on ‘feeling’ – they’d always look to do a properly controlled experiment – but it doesn’t happen in teaching as often as it should.  (I got that from Eric Mazur).

Then perhaps I might look at what’s going on. For example, is it a result of our semesterized teaching, where everything is arranged in neat little packages called ‘papers’ – you do the paper, sit the exam, and then promptly forget everything in it? I’ve often thought that NCEA encourages compartmentalized learning; a concept from one assessment standard absolutely can’t be used in a problem in another assessment standard.  The trouble is that real physics isn’t like this – the spider’s web of concepts is tightly linked together. That’s one thing I like about the approach of the  NZQA physics scholarship exam – a student needs to pull together concepts from across physics to make sense of a problem – just like real physics.

However, applying Mazur’s rule here, I shouldn’t speculate about whether semesterized teaching / NCEA encourages this – I should actually go and find it out. So maybe I should just stop writing on this blog entry, fire up the literature search engines and see what I can find – and, if the answer’s ‘not much’, then actually think about doing some proper research on it.

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