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Non-linear teaching *October 9, 2017*

*Posted by apetrov in Blogroll, Physics, Science.*

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I wanted to share some ideas about a teaching method I am trying to develop and implement this semester. Please let me know if you’ve heard of someone doing something similar.

This semester I am teaching our undergraduate mechanics class. This is the first time I am teaching it, so I started looking into a possibility to shake things up and maybe apply some new method of teaching. And there are plenty offered: flipped classroom, peer instruction, Just-in-Time teaching, etc. They all look to “move away from the inefficient old model” where there the professor is lecturing and students are taking notes. I have things to say about that, but not in this post. It suffices to say that most of those approaches are essentially trying to make students *work* (both with the lecturer and their peers) in class and outside of it. At the same time those methods attempt to “compartmentalize teaching” i.e. make large classes “smaller” by bringing up each individual student’s contribution to class activities (by using “clickers”, small discussion groups, etc). For several reasons those approaches did not fit my goal this semester.

Our Classical Mechanics class is a *gateway class* for our physics majors. It is the first class they take after they are done with general physics lectures. So the students are already familiar with the (simpler version of the) material they are going to be taught. The goal of this class is to start *molding physicists out of students*: they learn to simplify problems so physics methods can be properly applied (that’s how “a Ford Mustang improperly parked at the top of the icy hill slides down…” turns into “a block slides down the incline…”), learn to always derive the final formula before plugging in numbers, look at the asymptotics of their solutions as a way to see if the solution makes sense, and many other wonderful things.

So with all that I started doing something I’d like to call *non-linear teaching*. The gist of it is as follows. I give a lecture (and don’t get me wrong, I do make my students talk and work: I ask questions, we do “duels” (students argue different sides of a question), etc — all of that can be done efficiently in a class of 20 students). But instead of one homework with 3-4 problems per week I have two types of homework assignments for them: *short homeworks* and *projects*.

Short homework assignments are *single-problem assignments* given after each class that must be done by the next class. They are designed such that a student need to re-derive material that we discussed previously in class with small new twist added. For example, in the block-down-to-incline problem discussed in class I ask them to choose coordinate axes in a different way and prove that the result is independent of the choice of the coordinate system. Or ask them to find at which angle one should throw a stone to get the maximal possible range (including air resistance), etc. This way, instead of doing an assignment in the last minute at the end of the week, students have to work out what they just learned in class every day! More importantly, I get to change *how* I teach. Depending on how they did on the previous short homework, I adjust the material (both speed and volume) discussed in class. I also design examples for the future sections in such a way that I can repeat parts of the topic that was hard for the students previously. Hence, instead of a linear propagation of the course, we are moving along something akin to helical motion, returning and spending more time on topics that students find more difficult. That’t why my teaching is “non-linear”.

Project homework assignments are designed to develop understanding of how topics in a given chapter relate to each other. There are as many project assignments as there are chapters. Students get two weeks to complete them.

Overall, students solve exactly the same number of problems they would in a normal lecture class. Yet, those problems are scheduled in a different way. In my way, students are forced to learn by constantly re-working what was just discussed in a lecture. And for me, I can quickly react (by adjusting lecture material and speed) using constant feedback I get from students in the form of short homeworks. Win-win!

I will do benchmarking at the end of the class by comparing my class performance to aggregate data from previous years. I’ll report on it later. But for now I would be interested to hear your comments!

Alexey, this sounds like a really good idea. I think it would also work well with E&M, which involves mathematical techniques that take a while to sink in. Let us know how your techniques work out, at the end of the course but also as you move along.