Teaching physics without the physic[al]

As we emerge from ‘lockdown’* it’s time to start reflecting on how we, as a tertiary teaching establishment, have been continuing to provide quality teaching to our learners. Like most places, The University of Waikato has a rapid transition to online teaching. From what I hear from colleagues and students, through official and unofficial channels, it has actually gone reasonably well overall. From my own perspective there have been no disasters. There was a bit of rapid learning on my part, and some pulling-out (figuratively) of my now-overgrown hair, but I got there. I’ve been doing most lectures live via Zoom – students have been able to watch and participate live (or ‘synchronously’, using the jargon term), or watch a recording (‘asynchronous engagement’). Tutorials I’ve done live, though they’ve not really worked so well, with only a handful of students in any class willing to speak – this is pretty common in physical sciences.

Laboratory classes are a problem, however. In my third-year Quantum Chemistry class, I’ve dodged that a bit by fishing out some results obtained by a student last year. The students then can process that data in the same way they would if they’d collected it themselves. Sure, they have missed out on the ‘doing’ bit of the experiment, but as third-year students they have done a lot of ‘doing’ already in their degree. I don’t think there’s too much cause for concern, particularly if practical work can be resumed in some form later in the year.

However, in my first year Physics in Context class, the lack of practicals does pose a real problem. So much learning is done in these classes. In fact, when we put this paper together about three years ago, it was done on the premise that the main learning activities would be the lab classes. The rest of the course, that is, the lectures, tutorials and assignments, have been explicitly designed to support the learning that is done in the labs. Traditionally it’s been the other way around – lab work has been designed to support (or illustrate, more usually) the learning done in the lectures**. The reason for this choice is that physics, and any other science, is fundamentally based on experiment. How do we construct knowledge in science? By observing what happens when we poke something, by formulating and testing hypotheses, and by applying our knowledge to measure or evaluate something. The course is designed to teach these skills explicity, rather than leaving them implicit (and thus not likely to be learned.)

That has left rather a big hole in the paper. Yes, I can and have taught the theory, and ‘content’ knowledge, and helped students through solving problems. The students possibly do not know what they’ve missed, but I think it is a lot.

The Australian Institute of Physics has recently released a Position Statement regarding the move to online teaching during the COVID-19 crisis. In particular they take the position that what universities have been doing (and I would include the NZ universities here) regarding the teaching of physics should be considered a short-term, emergency measure, and that it should not be allowed to become a “new normal”** beyond the immediate lifetime of this crisis.

The AIP contends that the high quality and high standing of physics education in Australia stems from large face to-face and hands-on curriculum components, from high levels of student-student and student-teacher interactions, and from invigilated examinations.

In other words, online teaching and assessment of physics may be fine for some parts of the curriculum, but it cannot become dominant over face-to-face, hands-on components. It is absolutely true that COVID-19 has triggered us to use some really positive and effective teaching strategies, and we should not abandon them post COVID-19, but we do need to remember that physics is physical.


*I hate that term. It sounds as if we were locked in our houses, which was never the case.

**There’s a lot of evidence, however, that no learning at all was ever done in traditional-style physics lectures.

***I hate that term too.

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