Getting students to do your work for you

Probably every teacher’s dream is to do nothing and still have your class engaged with learning. I experienced that at the Scholarship Physics session I ran on Saturday.

I was doing an exercise with the students to help them to present physics answers clearly. Every physics teacher probably knows what I mean here – often, in a response to a written question, a student will produce a pile of equations sprawled across the paper, with equals signs where there shouldn’t be equals signs  (e.g.  F = ma = a = F/m ; here that second equals sign should be an ‘implies’ sign, but equals has sneaked in instead, rendering it silly) , few if any words of explanation, and an answer at the end that is nearly but not quite right – then you feel as a teacher it is your duty to try to decipher what has been written and try to find out where the student has gone wrong. And it ain’t easy, I can tell you. My point is that an examiner has piles and piles of scripts to mark – just how much time is he or she going to spend trying to work out what your scribblings mean?

So, for a particular question, I went through it carefully on the whiteboard, identifying all the steps, then I got the students to write down their answer as if they were answering that question in an exam. Then, the last step was to get the students to swap their paper with their neighbour, and see if they could decipher what their neighbour had written. Was it clear? Did it use physics terms correctly? Did it miss things out? etc. At this point the room erupted into conversation, as pairs of students started helping each other as to how to write things properly so they could be understood. It was fantastic to watch and listen to.  I didn’t have to go round looking at what fifty students wrote (not that I could do that) – they were ‘peer’ assessing (e.g. see Eric Mazur’s work here), and, from the conversations I heard, doing it really well.

Of course, it doesn’t mean I don’t have a job to do – getting them to discuss the right questions and situations, and identifying where the class as a whole is falling down still needs to be done, but it does show just how effective a teacher can be by thinking about an activity carefully first, then just being quiet while the students do it.





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