Subject Advice For Physics Teachers

Teaching is a challenging career, but these insightful tips for Physics teachers can help create an active, engaging classroom where students enjoy learning.

Physics can be an intimidating subject for students and teachers. For students, physics is a high level course and may be the most difficult science class they enroll in. For teachers, physics involves distilling complex mathematics-based concepts, theories, and equations into language that students can comprehend without distorting advanced scientific principles. By taking a realistic, active approach, teachers can encourage students to participate in physics and inspire them toward success.

Advice For Physics Teachers: Class Lectures

Lectures and generalized instruction is a necessary component of every physics class. At the beginning of the term, teachers should assess students' math skills, because physics relies heavily on computations using algebra, trigonometry, and even rudimentary calculus. Knowing how the students fare with math problems can help determine how much lecture time needs to be spent practicing math skills. Physics teachers can coordinate with math teachers to determine difficult areas and schedule additional help, tutoring sessions, or remedial reviews if necessary.

Physics teachers should also collaborate with chemistry teachers to avoid duplicating topics. While school districts divide scientific concepts differently between subjects, topics such as thermodynamics and nuclear energy may be assigned to either physics or chemistry classes. Two teachers addressing the same material in different ways may be confusing and hinder student performance. If both teachers are dealing with similar topics, consulting with one another insures that each teacher approaches the material as it applies to a specific subject, and distinctions between the two disciplines become clearer.

Because of the high number of facts, equations, concepts, and vocabulary terms in physics, teachers should encourage the use of flashcards as a study tool. Metric units, calculation shortcuts, and other material can be learned quickly and reviewed frequently with flashcards. Physics is a cumulative subject with each unit building on the information learned in the previous section, and flashcards are a quick and easy way to remind students about past material. Large flashcards can be used by the entire class as a warm-up activity or end-of-class review, and students can make their own cards for extra study.

Physics uses dozens of equations, from simple formulas with limited variables to complex figures involving trigonometric functions, multiple unknowns, and advanced mathematics. Physics teachers should consider providing students with a reference equation sheet rather than requiring rote memorization. Student energy is then directed toward understanding physics concepts and the purpose of the equations, encouraging deeper comprehension. Of course, higher level physics classes such as advanced placement or beginning college courses should still encourage memorization, since reference sheets may not be permitted for standardized exams.

Throughout each lecture, physics teachers should use frequent real-life connections, examples, and anecdotes to illustrate concepts. This helps students visualize difficult material and relate it to their lives so they can understand its significance. For example, when studying electricity, discussing wiring strategies for holiday lights and the potential for short circuits causing fires is far more relevant than using a nameless sample circuit. Students will remember a vivid example long after the class has ended, and it will demonstrate how physics is important in everyday life.

Advice For Physics Teachers: Laboratory Activities

No science class is complete without extensive lab exercises, and physics is no exception. Depending on the structure of the school day, labs could be scheduled weekly, on alternating days, or even daily if the period is long enough. Many students learn best through hands-on, physical activities, and the more labs they are engaged in, the more they will understand the concepts governing those labs.

Teachers should first emphasize lab safety. Even though a physics class does not use scalpels or chemicals like biology and chemistry classes, accidents are still possible. Students should not engage in horseplay, both for their safety and the safety of expensive equipment. Goggles and other protective gear is not as necessary in a physics lab, but students should know that long hair, dangling or loose clothing, and other objects could tangle in equipment and cause injuries or invalidate the procedure.

Before assigning lab exercises, the teacher should perform the lab and make any necessary adjustments to procedural instructions, timing, or materials. Even basic labs may not perform as expected, and the teacher must be prepared to explain variations and awkward results. By performing the lab first, the teacher can determine the approximate range of responses and will be able to tell if students are not following the correct procedures simply by glancing at their data. At the very least, testing lab equipment such as stopwatches, electronic meters, and scales insures that students are not confronted with malfunctioning or inoperative equipment that would prevent them from achieving expected results.

Lab exercises are naturally noisy. In a physics lab, objects are frequently rolling, colliding, and falling while students measure the acceleration, timing, and distance for different starting conditions. Students should be encouraged to collaborate in true scientific fashion, sharing results to look for patterns and discrepancies, and that interaction will increase the noise level. Announcements and emergency instructions should still be audible, but teachers must expect increased volume when students are working in the lab.

Physics students will benefit from learning to write lab reports. Using a specific format for exercises and lab activities helps foster the discipline needed for scientific study, and physics labs especially require neat, accurate data tables and analysis. Report formats vary but should include key elements such as the theory or concept being examined, procedural steps, data collection, and analysis. Not only does this help students stay focused on their work, but it also encourages higher-order thinking skills and in-depth interaction with the material.

Both during class lectures and lab exercises, physics teachers must be patient. Many students have difficulty with science classes, and physics may be the most difficult subject they attempt. Reviewing concepts and solving additional practice problems can be helpful, and teachers should be available for tutoring sessions outside of class or when the day's activities are complete. Lecture transcripts, an updated website, and supplementary worksheets are useful tools for struggling students, but the most useful tool is a helpful and encouraging teacher.

Physics may be an advanced subject, but teaching it can be simple. By offering extra help, focusing on key concepts, and incorporating lab activities, teachers introduce their students to the forces, laws of motion, and other theories that constitute their physical world. Students will enjoy an active classroom, and teachers will enjoy actively learning students.

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