20 March 2008

Just like high school?

This post over at Uncertain Principles argues that the problem with introductory physics classes are that they're too much like high school physics classes. Students are bored and have seen it all before.

The same argument could probably be made about any first year introductory science class. I'll slide this over to introductory biology rather than physics for the rest of this post, because I think the issues are so similar.

First, there's an empirical question of how similar those really are. And if they are similar, it is because they represent core concepts students need to progress?

Second, even if the subject matter of the classes are similar, does it hurt to revisit the basics? After all, expertise is not something that one develops over their last year of high school -- it takes years of practice and effort. And even if students have seen something before, they may not have seen it "my way." Give two instructors the same material, and one can take it and create something intriguing and entertaining, and the other can suck the life right out of it.

Third, are students bored because they know it already? If so, you'd expect very high rates of success -- which is not what most introductory university science classes see. Hugh failure rates in introductory science classes are the norm, not the exception. Sad but true. This suggests that if students are bored, it's not because they "know it."

But for the sake of argument, if the author is on to something, there may be a deeper problem in addressing it. It's highly doubtful that university instructors know what is being taught in high schools. Most university level instructors may have only vague ideas of the conditions "on the ground" in the schools their students attended.

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