Making it meaningful

Towards the end of my second semester general physics course last semester, a few students told me (separately) that they liked this semester better than last semester. I did my usual “oh really” face while secretly smiling inside because THEY LIKED ME! But then they said why, and I’ve been trying to figure out whether it means anything. They were saying that they liked how the material was more connected to their lives. My first thought was it was weird that they didn’t feel that way about the first semester – you know, forces, momentum, spinning, stuff like that. It made me think that perhaps I was inadvertently on to something.

They mentioned that they liked the sound unit because we constantly were using examples from their lives to explain things. One example that comes to mind was when I asked them when in their lives they realized that sound didn’t travel infinitely fast. For me it was walking my dog in the outfield of a softball team practice. For others it’s thunder, or a professional baseball game, or whatever. Given the comments from those few students above, I think I want to make sure that I keep doing that kind of thing in class.

I don’t teach the first semester, but I certainly know that my own experience in general physics 1 was not overly related to my life. I remember not being convinced of forces because they didn’t explain pillows to me.

Anyways, I just wanted to get this thought down to remind myself in the future. Your thoughts? Here are some starters for you:

  • I was one of those students and you totally misunderstood me. What I meant was . . .
  • I was one of those students and what you forgot to mention was . . .
  • My students always like the 2nd term material better. I think it’s because . . .
  • Weird, my students always like the 1st term material better. I think you’re doing it all wrong by . . .
  • This is a woefully short post. Try getting your thoughts together better before firing up WordPress. Here’s a few starters for you . . .
  • I jump into modern physics topics right away. You’re a fool not to. Everything you’re teaching is centuries old! Here’s how to fix it. . .
  • Great, another batch of students who think that the circuits in their house are DC and other big problems like . . .

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in syllabus creation, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Making it meaningful

  1. Greg Wi says:

    Teachers learn quickly to make content relevant (or significant) to their students – one way to do this is to connect the content to their lives.

  2. achmorrison says:

    Here’s a half-baked comment for the half-baked post – Whenever I teach the second semester general physics (algebra-based) and get comments from students about how much better, more relevant, easier to understand, etc the second course was compared to the first, I try to note what the student’s major is. I find that the more bio-oriented the major is, the more they like the optics/sound/waves part of the course. The more chem-oriented the major is seems to correlate to enjoying the E/M part of the course more. There often seems to be overlap, though, in that if a set of the students is enjoying any of the material, the rest of the class can rally to try to make it work. But in the first semester, none of the students seem to make connections to their major and thus seem to suffer all together. Obviously this is not something I’m trying to encourage, but it’s tough to recognize and then act on in the first term when it happens.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      yeah, I agree with the majors breakdown.

      On Tue, Jan 6, 2015 at 3:22 PM, SuperFly Physics wrote:


  3. bretbenesh says:

    I am a little late here, but here is my guess: the first semester deals with visual things that students are very familiar with. They already have an intuitive notion of how all of that works: “I already know F=ma because when I push my little brother, he goes backwards. If I push harder, he goes backwards more quickly. If I push my dad the same amount, he doesn’t not go backwards as quickly.”

    But sound and waves are things that students are a little familiar with, but not a lot. Students might know that sound can echo back off of a wall, but that has always been a little mysterious.

    So I would guess that the first semester is not very surprising, it is just formalizing a bunch of stuff that they already (intuitively) know. The second semester actually explains some mysteries.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      what you say makes a lot of sense, Bret, though it’s interesting that I’m really only hearing that now. In the past it’s usually be more like “I like 1st semester better because it’s stuff I can play with.”

      On Fri, Jan 9, 2015 at 12:24 PM, SuperFly Physics wrote:


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