Tag Archives: physics education research

Why I’m a Modeler

This is the first in a series of posts sharing the stories of teachers using Modeling Instruction.

My name is Frank Noschese and I’m on the American Modeling Teachers’ Association Board of Directors as Member-at-Large. Here’s my modeling story:

I had heard about modeling instruction on various physics teaching email lists when I began teaching in 1998. “Awesome,” “life-changing,” and “the best professional development I ever had” were phases my virtual colleagues frequently used when describing modeling and the intensive summer workshops.

After my first few years of teaching, when I was finally able to keep my head above water, I investigated the Modeling Instruction program and poked around the ASU modeling website. I found the mechanics worksheets. I had struck gold! I was excited to transform my classroom into the hands-on, minds-on, discussion-based physics course I had been longing to teach. I opened up the first document file like it was my 6th birthday all over again.

I’ll be honest: At first glance, I was not impressed. The worksheets seemed very pedestrian and had problems just like any other textbook. Additional representations like motion maps and energy pie graphs seemed juvenile.

But the praise kept pouring in on the email lists. And there was this nagging voice that wouldn’t go away. It kept saying, “Maybe there is more to this modeling thing.” So I enrolled in a 2.5 week workshop called “PHY 620: Powerful Ideas And Quantitative Modeling: Mechanics” run by Buffalo State College’s Physics Education Department. The workshop leaders were Dewayne Beery, Dan MacIsaac, Marie Plumb, Chris Filkins, Joe Zawicki, and Kathleen Falconer.

In the workshop, the power of modeling became clear. It wasn’t about the worksheets. It wasn’t about the labs. It was about the discussion and discourse and the questioning and the arguing and the failing and the guiding and the succeeding that happened as we worked through the material. The multiple representations aspect was exceptionally helpful and powerful, not juvenile. I was hooked. I returned to school in September feeling more excited (and nervous) than before.

That first year went really well, I thought. As did successive years. Though I feel my discussion/questioning skills have been getting a little rusty and I’m longing to take a second workshop in E&M or Waves.

The Modeling Listserv has always been an invaluable resources for sharing ideas and asking questions. As have other email lists. But I slowly started noticing other teachers (particularly younger teachers and math teachers) reaching out for help and offering advice by blogging and tweeting. They weren’t connected to the email lists and weren’t going to hear about Modeling Instruction the same way I had. Upon first hearing the word “modeling,” they might incorrectly think it means “I do, We do, You do”-type teaching. I wanted to reach out to these other teachers and showcase modeling and other physics education related pedagogies. So in the summer of 2010, I joined Twitter and started this blog. The word is getting out, even if it means shouting over the voices of less effective pedagogies which have been getting the lion’s share of the money and media attention.

I became an AMTA member because I want Modeling to continue and thrive. And I wanted to be on the Board to help bring AMTA and Modeling into the view of educators beyond physics and show the world what effective science instruction looks like.

I hope you’ll join me.


Khan vs. Karplus: Elevator Edition

Exhibit A: Sal Khan on elevators

Exhibit B: My students on elevators
Framed around the Karplus learning cycle (Exploration, Invention, and Application) my students construct the conceptual and mathematical models themselves.

1. Exploration Phase:

2. Invention Phase: 

  • Draw a motion diagram for the object attached to the scale when the scale is stationary, then being pulled up and then stops.
  • Draw a force diagram for the object attached to the scale when the scale is stationary, then being pulled up and then stops. Decide whether the force diagram is consistent with the motion diagram. How is the force diagram related ot the reading of the scale?
  • Use the force diagram and the idea under test to make a prediction of the relative readings of the scale.
  • Observe the experiment and reconcile the outcome with your prediction.

(Video and questions for this phase taken from Eugenia Etkina’s awesome site Physics Teaching Technology Resource which has many more video experiments.)

3. Application Phase:

Instead of showing our students a better lecture, let’s get them doing something better than lecture.

UPDATE: Welcome New York Times readers! Other recommended posts:

Khan Academy: My Final Remarks

Many people aren’t getting the nuances of my recent Khan Academy arguments. I’ll make my final remarks and then put this thread to rest.

Khan Academy videos are nothing new. MIT OpenCourseWare has been around for TEN YEARS now. Walter Lewin’s awesome physics lectures have been available for most of those 10 years — despite the fact they are pseudoteaching, and his students emerged with no greater understanding of physics than those of professors before him.

And I didn’t have a problem with Khan Academy (as a collection of videos) until very recently.

For me, the problem is the way Khan Academy is being promoted. The way the media sees it as “revolutionizing education.” The way people with power and money view education as simply “sit-and-get.”

(c) tcoffey (via Flickr)

If your philosophy of education is sit-and-get, i.e., teaching is telling and learning is listening, then Khan Academy is way more efficient than classroom lecturing. Khan Academy does it better.

But TRUE progressive educators, TRUE education visionaries and revolutionaries don’t want to do these things better. We want to DO BETTER THINGS.

Ironically, everything that is wrong with Khan Academy has been addressed in two previous TED talks:

According to Dan, today’s math curriculum is teaching students to expect — and excel at — paint-by-numbers classwork, robbing kids of a skill more important than solving problems: formulating them. How does Khan Academy foster problem posing and creativity?

Rather than instructing students with Khan’s videos, we should be inspiring them to figure things out on their own and learn how to create their own knowledge by working together. For example, instead of relying on lectures and textbooks, the Modeling Instruction paradigm emphasizes active student construction of conceptual and mathematical models in an interactive learning community. Students are engaged with simple scenarios to learn to model the physical world. In comparison to traditional instruction, Modeling is extremely effective — under expert modeling instruction high school students average more than two standard deviations higher on a standard instrument for assessing conceptual understanding of physics.

Watch one Modeling class in action:

In the clip, the teacher says, “I don’t lecture at all. Instead, I create experiences for the students either in the lab or puzzles and problems for them to solve and it’s up to them to try to figure that out.” I’ve often wondered why this type of teaching hasn’t gotten more attention in the media. Maybe because the teacher is using simple things like whiteboards and bowling balls rather than shiny iPads and SmartBoards?

While Khan argues that his videos now eliminate “one-size-fits-all” education, his videos are exactly that. I tried finding Khan Academy videos for my students to use as references for studying, or to use as a tutorial when there’s a substitute teacher, but I haven’t found a good one. They either tackle problems that are too hard (college level) or they don’t use a lot of the multiple representations that are so fundamental to my teaching (kinematic graphs, interaction diagrams, energy pie graphs, momentum bar charts, color-coded circuit diagrams showing pressure and flow, etc.) Khan Academy videos do not align with proper Physics Education Research pedagogy.

I find it troublesome that the Khan Academy team is not spending time and energy on the pedagogy of teaching math and science, but rather on refining the gaming mechanics of Khan Academy in response to “good” and “bad” behavior of students working through the software exercises. The “gamification” of learning in Khan Academy has had disastrous consequences at the Los Altos school pilot.

There are some truly innovative learning technologies that have been
around for years. If Khan Academy wants to grow out of their infancy as electronic worksheet drills, I hope their team takes a look at these more transformative educational technologies, all of which have been researched and tested:

Khan Academy also promotes the “usefulness” of its dashboard for its exercise software. I find most of that information useless, like knowing how many times a student rewound the movie, how many times she paused it, or how long he spent on a module. Those times could be affected by distractions from family, self-imposed distractions like facebook and texting, etc.

Feedback I would find WAY MORE useful:

  • knowing how many times a student attempted the same problem
  • knowing the student’s answer history to each problem; i.e, what the student’s wrong answers were
  • knowing the type of mistake a student made when choosing a wrong answer; e.g., did he forget to square the distance, did she apply kinetic energy conservation instead of momentum conservation, did he disregard the fact that the forces where in opposite directions, did she confuse force of friction with coefficient of friction, did he assume constant velocity when in fact it was accelerating, etc.
  • software that anticipates and recognizes those common mistakes (like all great teachers do) and gives the students immediate, tailored feedback during the exercise

Finally, everyone is talking about using Khan Academy as a way to do more inquiry and more project-based learning. However, Bill Gates and Sal Khan are not showing any examples about what students and teachers are doing beyond Khan Academy. The news stories are not showing the open-ended problems the kids should be engaging with after mastering the basics — instead they show kids sitting in front of laptops working drills and watching videos. The focus is on the wrong things.

Khan Academy is just one tool in a teacher’s arsenal. (If it’s the only tool, that is a HUGE problem.) Khan Academy can be useful for some kids as vehicle (build skills) to help them get to better places (solving complex problems).

Now let’s please shift the focus (yours and mine) toward the destination.

Important Talks/Media about Khan Academy

More Blog Posts Critical of Khan Academy, from me and others

Khan Academy-Related Blogs

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos

This must-watch video is from our friend Derek Muller, physics educator and science video blogger.


Derek writes:

It is a common view that “if only someone could break this down and explain it clearly enough, more students would understand.” Khan Academy is a great example of this approach with its clear, concise videos on science. However it is debatable whether they really work. Research has shown that these types of videos may be positively received by students. They feel like they are learning and become more confident in their answers, but tests reveal they haven’t learned anything. [ed. note: textbook definition of pseudoteaching]

The apparent reason for the discrepancy is misconceptions. Students have existing ideas about scientific phenomena before viewing a video. If the video presents scientific concepts in a clear, well illustrated way, students believe they are learning but they do not engage with the media on a deep enough level to realize that what was is presented differs from their prior knowledge.

There is hope, however. Presenting students’ common misconceptions in a video alongside the scientific concepts has been shown to increase learning by increasing the amount of mental effort students expend while watching it.


My Ph.D. thesis, which includes the content from the publications below, can be downloaded here: Designing Effective Multimedia for Physics Education

2008 Muller, D. A., Sharma, M. D. and Reimann, P.,
Raising cognitive load with linear multimedia to promote conceptual changeScience Education92(2), 278-296

2008 Muller, D. A., Bewes, J., Sharma, M. D. and Reimann, P.
Saying the wrong thing: Improving learning with multimedia by including misconceptionsJournal of Computer Assisted Learning,24(2), 144-155

2008 Muller, D. A., Lee, K. J. and Sharma, M. D.
Coherence or interest: Which is most important in online multimedia learning?Australasian Journal of Educational Technology,24(2), 211-221

 2007 Muller, D. A., Sharma, M. D., Eklund, J. and Reimann, P.
Conceptual change through vicarious learning in an authentic physics settingInstructional Science35(6), 519-533

The implication of Derek’s research, both for online science videos and for in-the-classroom science lessons, are obvious. Derek discussed his PhD research in more detail in his previous post “What Puts the Pseudo in Pseudoteaching?” You can find more of Derek’s videos at Veritasium.com or on the Veritasium YouTube Channel. Follow him at @veritasium on Twitter.

What Puts the Pseudo in Pseudoteaching?

Today we have a guest post from Derek Muller, a physics educator who runs the science video blog Veritasium.  Derek is @veritasium on Twitter.

I have made some great pseudoteaching – but it was all in the name of research, let me assure you.

My interests in physics, education, and film converged in a doctoral dissertation at the University of Sydney starting in 2004. Since nearly all forms of education involve multimedia presentations in some form (e.g. a lecture with pictures, an illustrated text, an animation with narration, etc.), I proposed that, by studying this confined unit, we can learn some of the fundamental mechanics of teaching and learning which are at play in broader contexts. My central research question was:  how does one design effective multimedia to teach physics?

I made an eight-minute video on Newton’s First and Second Laws and it had all the hallmarks of outstanding pseudoteaching. Here’s a short excerpt from the video:

1. Looks like good teaching

  • The script was written as clearly and concisely as possible.
  • Ideas were demonstrated with concrete examples.
  • Animations were added to highlight the salient features of the examples.
  • Graphs for the motion were provided and explained with narration.
  • Research-based principles for multimedia design (developed by Richard Mayer and others) were adhered to.

2. Students feel like they are learning

  • Students were pre and post-tested plus a small group was interviewed.
  • Students reported higher confidence in the correctness of their answers on the post-test.
  • To describe the video, students used phrases like ‘simple’, ‘clear and concise’, ‘easy to understand,’ and ‘a good review’.

3. Very little learning takes place

  • For students with no high school physics, the average pre-test score was 6.0 out of 26.
  • The average post-test score, administered immediately after the video, was 6.3 (on the same questions).
  • Some students told me that they saw their (alternative) conceptions presented in the video (e.g. The force of her hand was greater than the force of friction so the book could slide with constant velocity).

Why I think lectures and videos so often amount to pseudoteaching

1. They are outside the zone of proximal development (ZPD)

  • Physics involves many interacting concepts. If students don’t have deep, well-defined, ideas about these concepts, the lecture will be well beyond their ZPD (and that is before we consider mathematical ability, misconceptions, etc.)

2. Misconceptions cause mis-perception

  • For example a misconception about acceleration – perhaps thinking of it as velocity – would mean a student is incapable of accurately perceiving what the lecturer is saying. Furthermore, if the lecturer is saying it in a clear, casual way, the student will think they understand it and that it corresponds to what they are thinking already.

3. Misconceptions cause proactive interference

  • Proactive interference is a construct from cognitive science. It is a term for when a previously learned idea/behavior interferes with a newly learned idea/behavior. I experienced this when I moved to Australia because here the light switches flick down for on and up for off.
  • Furthermore, this means that even if students have a ‘breakthrough’ they may revert to older ideas, days or weeks later. Just as I kept turning lights off, and turning on the windshield wipers (when trying to indicate) long after I knew what I really should be doing.

4. Lack of motivation and/or attention

  • Sometimes we all tune out. If the information does not pass our sensory buffer, it can have no effect on cognition.

5. No opportunity to ask questions

  • It is impossible to ask questions of a video and difficult to do in a lecture setting.

So what can be done to increase the effectiveness of multimedia presentations?

1. Make sure students are in the zone of proximal development

  • It is important that students have a strong understanding of the prerequisites.
  • It is also important that the educator knows the alternative conceptions prevalent in his/her audience. Having misconceptions puts students outside the ZPD even if their other prerequisites are strong.

2. Help the viewer correctly perceive the presentation by starting with the misconceptions

  • If the ideas that students are really thinking are presented first, they will perceive them correctly. This can then serve as a starting point for explaining how the scientific concept differs.

3.  Counter proactive interference by using previous conceptions as footholds

  • By tying into the student’s prior knowledge, the misconception acts as a conceptual peg on which the scientific knowledge is hung. According to studies on proactive interference (and science education research), the misconception is robust and likely to be recalled – so it is important that the scientific idea is closely tied to it.
  • The misconception should be discussed for its own merits – why is this idea so common? In what ways does it correctly reflect observations of the world? In what specific ways does it lead to inaccurate reasoning?

4. Make the presentation short and interesting. Use activities, questioning, reflection etc. around the presentation.

  • This should help keep attention and motivation.
  • Much of the learning would take place during the reflection activities.

The multimedia on Newton’s First and Second Laws that I outlined above I called the Exposition. I made two additional films, each of which included common misconceptions. One, called the Dialogue had the misconceptions presented as the genuine beliefs of one of the actors. Through discussion with the tutor character, these misconceptions were resolved. The other, called the Refutation, consisted of the same material as in the Exposition plus misconceptions stated and refuted. Here a short excerpt from the Dialogue:

After watching one of the misconception treatments, students’ confidence in the accuracy of their post-test answers improved about the same amount as after watching the Exposition. It seems watching any short instructional segment improves confidence by x. But in interviews they were more likely to say the video was ‘confusing’ or ‘hard to understand’. So how much did they learn? Scores on the post-test were significantly higher than for the Exposition treatment. In fact, students with no high school physics who watched the Dialogue nearly doubled their average score from 6 to 11 out of 26 (the Refutation was similar but not quite as impressive).

Even more interesting was how much mental effort students reported investing in watching the multimedia treatment. Students who watched the Exposition reported an average of about 5 out of 9 (‘neither low nor high mental effort’), whereas those who watched the Dialogue averaged 6 out of 9 (‘rather high mental effort’).  Depending on what is presented, students watch it in a different way (perhaps more actively), and that determines how much learning occurs.

How does this view help us understand teaching and learning more broadly?

For one thing, I think it shows that pseudoteaching is audience dependent.

In the discussion above I mainly used data from the Fundamentals stream – students with no high school physics background. Students in the Advanced stream (these are students who did well in high school physics) achieved the same gains across all multimedia treatments. Any ceiling effect would have been slight because their average post-test score was 85%.

Another pseudoteaching post mentioned how Feynman’s lectures became populated with graduate students and faculty. This is exactly the kind of audience for whom the lectures would not be pseudoteaching. These learners would:

  • Be in the Zone of Proximal Development.
  • Have few misconceptions (many fewer than undergraduates).
  • Have better formed schemas so proactive interference has less impact.
  • Be intrinsically motivated by physics and therefore very attentive to the presentation.

There is a remark often made at science education conferences, usually with a chuckle, “Can’t learn anything from these talks because you know we learn nothing from a lecture.” I hope everyone recognizes the problem with statements like these. We can learn from presentations. What and how much we learn comes down to the level of the presentation, our existing schemas and misconceptions, and our motivation and attention.

Full disclosure

I have the excellent fortune to rarely teach a class of more than 14 students. Most are very bright and keen and I have virtually no discipline issues. I know every student by name and one of my mottos is “never say anything a student could say for you.” My classes are much more a discussion than a lecture and I definitely feel like this is the best method for teaching and learning.

The point of this post is not to promote one-way presentations or video lectures. It is to raise the level of discussion about multimedia (and about teaching and learning more generally). I think the transmission/construction dichotomy is unproductive and misleading. It creates a very narrow view of education (like Animal Farm – “Four legs good, two legs bad,” “hands on good, hands off bad,” “doing good, listening bad,” “newfangled good, traditional bad,” etc.) Does constructivism really support hands-on, doing, not telling? I’m not sure it does. Constructivism says ‘learners construct there own understanding actively, by thinking,’ but it does not say how this can best be facilitated.  Listeners and viewers are not necessarily passive. I argue what is presented determines how the presentation is viewed which determines how much learning occurs.


My Ph.D., which includes the content from the publications below, can be downloaded here: Designing Effective Multimedia for Physics Education

2008 Muller, D. A., Sharma, M. D. and Reimann, P.,
Raising cognitive load with linear multimedia to promote conceptual changeScience Education92(2), 278-296

2008 Muller, D. A., Bewes, J., Sharma, M. D. and Reimann, P.
Saying the wrong thing: Improving learning with multimedia by including misconceptionsJournal of Computer Assisted Learning,24(2), 144-155

2008 Muller, D. A., Lee, K. J. and Sharma, M. D.
Coherence or interest: Which is most important in online multimedia learning?Australasian Journal of Educational Technology,24(2), 211-221

 2007 Muller, D. A., Sharma, M. D., Eklund, J. and Reimann, P.
Conceptual change through vicarious learning in an authentic physics settingInstructional Science35(6), 519-533


Derek’s Veritasium videos are crafted using the results from his research. Here’s a great example:

Be sure to check out the entire collection Veritasium.com and at the Veritasium YouTube channel. I would like to add that Derek’s results are important and should inform our face-to-face class discussions as well.

Increasing Engagement in Science

As part of a session on innovative practices in science at TeachMeet New Jersey 2011, I gave a presentation entitled “Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Increasing Engagement in Science”

I have posted that presentation, complete with speaker’s notes and plenty of links to further information, here: http://bit.ly/EngageSci

Any feedback you have would be greatly appreciated! (e.g., is there a bigger theme I am missing, etc.) Thanks! J3BC3J3HSY8J

Reassessment Experiment

CV.3 (A) I can solve problems involving average speed and average velocity.

That learning goal is the thorn in the sides of many of my students right now.

They took their midterm exam last week and many missed the question associated with that goal. The (A) denotes that it is a core goal.  Which means that, based on this grading scale:

their quarter grade cannot go above 69 until all core goals are met.

I handed the exams back in class yesterday.  Naturally, many students wanted to reassess on the spot. Since I have an archive of quizzes from previous years, it was easy for me to print out a bunch and let them have at it.

And most of them missed it again on the reassessment. No surprise there, really. Without any remediation, it was just another shot in the dark.

So as an experiment, I posted the following to our class’s Edmodo page today:

Does CV.3 have you Down? If so, do the following by Monday:

(1) Explain, in detail, the difference between average speed and average velocity. Simply writing the two equations won’t be sufficient.

(2) Describe in detail a situation where an object’s average speed and its average velocity have the same value.

(3) Describe in detail a situation where an object’s average speed and its average velocity have different values.

(4) Create your own physics problem involving average speed and average velocity that is NOT a simple “plug-and-chug” type problem. (For example, “A car travels 50 miles north in 2 hours. What is its average speed and velocity?” is NOT acceptable.) Write up both the problem and a complete solution. Feel free to use pictures, graphs (even video) as part of your problem. Check out this link for non-“plug-and-chug” problem types: http://tycphysics.org/TIPERs/tipersdefn.htm

(5) Cite all resources (classmates, parents, books, web pages, videos, etc.) you used. (It doesn’t have to be in proper MLA format. A simple list is fine.)

Submit you work HERE on Edmodo. You should upload a file (word, PDF, etc.). The work must be YOUR OWN. I can tell when “collaboration” is really copying.

I hope this provides both the necessary remediation and a unique opportunity to reassess beyond simple quiz questions. I am really excited to see what kind of problems they write. I have done student problem writing in the past, but was never pleased with the results. Perhaps by requiring them to create a TIPER problem, we can push past equation memorization and towards understanding.

This scenario has also raised a few more unanswered questions: Why do I have this goal in my course in the first place? Why do my students keep missing it even though all quizzes (and the midterm) are open notebook? And if so many students are missing it, is it really a “core” goal?