At the ICER 2011 keynote, Eric Mazur reported that when students see a demonstration and either do or do not engage in a discussion of the demonstration, they adjust their memory to fit their model[1. Mazur, E. (2011) International Computing Education Research Conference (ICER) Keynote. Providence, RI. Slides available from http://mazur.harvard.edu]. In other words, they retain their prior (possibly non-canonical) mental model and mis-remember the facts of the event to fit that model, rather than updating their mental model to account for the new facts[1. The keynote is also discussed by Mark Guzdial on his blog at http://computinged.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/eric-mazurs-keynote-at-icer-2011-observing-demos-hurts-learning-and-confusion-is-a-sign-of-understanding/].
In physics education, given the following modes of instruction
- No demonstration
- Demonstration to students
- Student Prediction without discussion
- Student-to-student Discussion (similar to peer instruction)
students do equally poorly on a standard instrument intended to assess students’ understanding of Newtonian mechanics.
So, if we assume that we can’t skip demonstration altogether, and if we can’t just demonstrate, and if demonstration followed by discussion all suffer this fate, then what can be done? Engage students directly.
It’s not the act of predicting or discussing a prediction that triggers changes in student mental models, but rather confrontation with confusing experiences: staking ones intellectual ground so that one knows what one believes, then being confronted by a confounding example, and finally needing to substantially defend and explain the new experience.
Confusion seems to be an essential part of the learning process, or at least the ability of students to reflect and express their confusion[1. see the Dunning-Kruger effect http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning-Kruger_effect]. In a physics class where students were asked to report on what they were most confused about each week, those who expressed confusion did much better than students who claimed no confusion. Willingness to express confusion positively correlates with understanding[1. forthcoming from Mazur, E., et al].
So, in a peer instruction environment, we teach by questioning, not by telling or showing. We facilitate students’ engagement with the material rather than their obedience while in our classroom.
There is work on students’ use of mechanistic reasoning (i.e., trying to articulate the underlying entities, entity properties, activities in which entities engage, and the mechanism by which those activities give rise the the phenomena of interest) in physics and math education by David Hammer (now at Tufts), Rosemary S. Russ[1. Russ, R. S. (2005) A Framework for Recognizing Students’ Mechanistic Reasoning. A dissertation available from http://drum.lib.umd.edu/handle/1903/4146] (now at Northwestern), Andrew Elby, Ayush Gupta, and Brian Danielak that relates to this… how students express their understandings of and reasoning about mechanisms underlying physical phenomena.
In short, if we’re not changing students’ mental models, than any learning that may occur is shallow and fragile. Some modes of instruction have a better chance of engaging students and changing their models, but unfortunately not the most popular modes of instruction, currently.