Tuesday Teaching Topic: First Law of Motion Edition

Apologies for the lack of posts. I was lured away by the lovely weather and my Tuesday morning writing sessions converted into Tuesday morning lakeshore run sessions. Luckily for you, I injured my back, and am back with another TTT.

TTT Question: If a student receives an “A,” does that demonstrate that they understand the course material? Have you ever had an experience when an “A” student says or writes somethings that belies a fundamental misunderstanding

As the semester comes to an end, we look for evidence that our students have learned something. Tests, oral examinations, term papers, capstone projects, and final conversations can invigorate or devastate us, frequently cycling through both emotions throughout a single day.

I am always concerned about the sort of learning–or lack of learning–that flies under my radar. My students perform better on the tests, and write better papers, but has their deeper understanding of the subject improved, or have they merely learned to imitate knowledge? Let’s look at some relevant physics.

First Law of Motion: 

Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.

I read a frightening story once that stays with me constantly in the classroom (What the Best College Teachers Do, pg. 22-23, by Ken Bain). After a full term of mastering the fundamental laws of physics with some of the brightest and most devoted students, some professors found that most students demonstrated that their underlying notion of physics was still Aristotlean, not Newtonian. In other words, even though most students could perform exceptionally well on a difficult physics examination, their method of answering some questions belied that this was only a surface level understanding, and that they still operated as though stasis was the natural state of objects. Only some specially designed questions demonstrated their ancient paradigm.

“Ibrahim Abou Hallous and David Hestenes (two physicists at Arizona State University) devised and validated an examination to determine how students understand motion….Even many “A” students continued to think like Aristotle rather than like Newton [at the end of a course designed to teach Newtonian motion]…Halloun and Hestenes wanted to probe this disturbing results a little further…What they heard astonished them: many of the students still refused to give up their mistaken ideas about motion. Instead, they argued that the experiment they had just witnessed did not exactly apply to the law of motion in question; it was a special case, or it didn’t quite fit the mistaken theory or law that they held as true. ‘As a rule,’ Halloun and Hestenes wrote, ‘students held firm to mistaken beliefs even when confronted with phenomena that contradicted those beliefs.’…’They tended at first not to question their own beliefs, but to argue that the observed instance was governed by some other law or principle and the principle they were using applied to a slightly different case.’ The students performed all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid confronting and revising the fundamental underlying principles that guided their understanding of the physical universe.”


I believe every discipline has some important lessons for all of us, and I appreciate physics for its ability to show definitively when our understanding of the world is just plain wrong or misconstrued in relatively clear and discrete terms. This is an example from physics, but it seems quite likely that something similar is going on in my own classes. And in philosophy, we don’t have the clear and relatively final answers that physics has to identify when this happens. So instead, I need to look at how physics deals with this, and see if I can apply the same methods in my own class.

I first watched the movie “Infinity,” a biopic about the physicist Richard Feynman, more than ten years ago. Overall, I found the movie mediocre, but it had a few enlightening moments. In particular, the four minute opening sequence is something that I find so poignant on the difference between trivial and genuine knowledge that I show it to all my students at least once per semester.

There are a few interesting pieces packed in this short clip. An anecdote about a bird comes at 1:24, when the 6-year old Richard listens to a bird, and asks his father, “What bird is that?” His father replies, “That’s a marvelous bird.” Trivially inquisitive Dick responds, “But what’s its name?”

Then comes the money line:

“Richie, I could tell you its name if I knew it, in all the languages in the world. But then you’d just know what people call it in different places. You wouldn’t learn anything about it. You got to look at the bird. You got to listen to the bird. You got to try to understand what it’s doing. You got to notice everything.”

6 thoughts on “Tuesday Teaching Topic: First Law of Motion Edition

  1. I actually changed my Final Paper assignment for the Mass Media course for this very reason. Had been using a position paper prompt that only lead to unconvincing arguments and regurgitated information. So I am instead throwing them a research paper that (I hope) prompts the students to critically apply the concepts we have seen in class. As with any process, though, I am sure it will go better in future semesters after I have worked the kinks out through trial and error.

    • I’ve found myself changing my final paper assignments as well. It’s hard to tell what kind of question is going to cut to the core of the lesson in week 1. But after we’ve experienced the texture of the semester’s conversations, I sometimes feel like I have a eureka moment about a much better final paper. It’s always an experiment, but it’s an interesting one.

  2. Yes. We all calculate grades in different ways. Given that our education system is predicated upon ranking and quantification of understanding, we are, in a way, socialized (really forced) into believing from a young age that a high grade means we’ve learned something and that we’re somewhat superior as compared to our peers. Low grades, then, must be attributed to a lack of understanding. This is far from the truth. Even if a grade in a class is based solely on cognitive measures, the best we are able to do with a grade is approximate understanding. Assessment of student learning also attempts to approximate understanding. For many of us, though we believe in meaningful assessment, at the end of the day we define our students at the end of any given semester with a letter on their transcript.

    With all of that said, it is possible for the letter grade to be a good measure of what a student actually knows assuming the student’s effort intersects the grading scheme in the right way. But, and this is just me, I feel that at the end of a given course there are students who earn an A or B, but still have misconceptions. I miss half grades. I don’t know if they would remedy the disconnect between grades and understanding, but at the moment a student who earns 89.5% of the points in my course is defined on paper in the same way that a student who earns 100% of the points.

    Aside from all of this, I’ve come to realize that if student leave with questions or even misconceptions (hopefully not major ones) that’s not the worst thing. I really only fully understood some mathematical concepts once I started teaching them. If time permitting, I would require students in all of my classes (not just the ones for future teachers) to teach a key concept to their peers. This happens informally, but wouldn’t that be an interesting alternative to our current, traditional final exam/paper structure. Of course, this would require that every student have the means to teach a concept, not just explain it, which could be messy. Although, if we are hoping to shape citizens, shouldn’t they be able to have a meaningful conversation about something they learned, or apply that knowledge in unusual ways. A letter, sadly, provides us with none of this information about a student.

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