Thursday, April 06, 2017

Developing Skills Versus Developing Concepts In Undergraduate Physics Labs

This is something that is dear to my heart.

If you have followed this blog for any considerable period of time, you might have encountered a project that I started on my own years ago on here titled "Revamping Intro Physics Lab". In a series of posts (there were 7 posts and one follow-up in total), I made suggestions on the type of lab exercises that I would like to do for students in such a class. The lab experiments are more "free form" and more of a discovery-type exercises, where the students make their own self-discovery without the baggage of knowing the underlying physics before hand.

I explained the rational for wanting to do this, and the most important aspect of it is the "skill" that one might develop in trying to systematically discover the connection and correlation between two different quantities. It is the beginning of finding first the correlations, and then proceed to finding the causation. I consider such skill to be of utmost importance, even more important than trying to make the students understand the underlying physics.

Therefore, it was a pleasant bonus when I read this paper. In it, the authors studied the E-CLASS assessment of students who went through a physics lab that (i) focused on developing lab skills; (ii) focused on developing physics concepts; and (iii) focused on both. What they discovered was that the students that went through a physics lab that focused on developing lab skills ".... showed more expert-like postinstruction responses and more favorable shifts than students in either concepts-focused or both-focused course...." And what is even more interesting is the finding that ".... the
ANCOVA demonstrated that the increase in score associated with skills-focused courses was larger for women than for men, and the difference was large enough to eliminate or even reverse the typical gender gap..... "

Of course, while this is very encouraging, I won't jump up and down (yet) because one has to read their caution at the end of the paper. As with anything, this needs to be looked at and studied a lot more to see if there is a true cause-and-effect factor here, especially on why a focus on lab skills could produce such an effect.

As for me, I'm all for this. In a class where the majority of students are not physics majors, or even in a class of non-science majors, having them understand that our knowledge of the physical universe is based on how we know about the relationship between two separate quantities is very important. That is how we make sense of our world. It is why uncorrelated events, such as how one arranges one's furniture in a room somehow affects one's prosperity doesn't make much sense. None science majors do not have a lot of opportunity for a guided study of the physical world. When we get them, we need to impart as much as we can in the most effective manner. A lab when they learn how to find out how one variable affects another, and the skills the employ to do that, can be the most valuable thing they learn in a physics lesson.


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