About physics and teaching

Deliberate Practice in Physics

with 4 comments

I have been trying to figure out the ways my colleague, Kelly, and I get our students to engage in deep practice (Daniel Coyle’s term) or deliberate practice (Geoff Colvin’s term) in the classroom and on their own when studying physics. This article by Stephen Chew nicely outlines the problems incoming college students have with mindset and study skills, arguing that they often lack the knowledge of what serious study looks like or feels like. While the work I’m trying to do with my students should definitely prepare them for studying in college, my more proximal concern is getting them to learn physics. I’m admittedly making an assumption that getting them to study in a more serious, deep and productive way in order to learn physics should serve them well in college, too.

Colvin’s book (Talent is Overrated) outlines some of the hallmarks of deep practice.

It is an activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

So what is it we actually do, as teachers, to improve performance?

Kelly and I do a lot of small group problem-solving sessions using whiteboards. Essentially the students do in the classroom what they used to do for homework. The reason I want them to use class time as practice time is that I can see exactly what is going on. In-class problem-solving also allows “continuously available feedback.” I started using class time as practice time after taking a course in Modeling Instruction, but my misgivings about homework started much earlier after deliberately watching students do homework (I work at a boarding school, so I am privileged to be able to witness this… in exchange for working a 15 hour day).

We have students present their work verbally. Talking one’s way through a thought process is fantastic practice. I need my students to do even more of this.

We let students, after plenty of scaffolding early in the year, design their experiments in the laboratory. Early in the year we give them a structure for designing an experiment (roughly: make and record initial observations, use that list of observations to decide what you can measure and how to measure it, pare that list down to what might be related and/or interesting to the phenomenon at hand, then decide what variables to hold constant, which to vary, and what you are going to plot), and we step through this structure, little by little handing off elements to the kids until they can design their own experiment with only a bit of coaching.

But what do we have students do that is “specifically designed to improve performance” when they aren’t with us. I don’t want to create students who depend on me being present in order to do physics. This makes me worried. How do I come up with something new, and does it really work? What evidence do I have? Is it working, but not yet? Does it seem to work, but then not lead to deep understanding that sticks? These are questions that bother me, leading me to stall while planning classes, my perfectionism becoming my procrastination tool of choice again, just like in college. Ok, I’m better than I was in college, but still… I don’t have good answers to these questions.

One hallmark of repetitious skills building is that the performance being worked on is altered in some way, and this is a possible solution to the problem of deliberate, solitary study. Problems are given with partial information, wind sprints are run uphill (even though the lacrosse field is flat), swimmers sprint tethered either to impeded them (the power rack) or to assist them (speed assist training), students create problems rather than just solve problems given them. The trouble is, I feel I can come up with many more ways we focus on performance in swimming (next post, I swear) than we do in the physics classroom. Maybe it isn’t true, but it’s a nagging concern. I’d love ideas about how others see themselves helping students toward deliberate practice.


Written by Mark Hammond

2011/03/19 at 10:03

Posted in deep practice, mindset

4 Responses

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  1. I have my students record themselves as they solve problems (pencasts with Livescribe pens and/or screencasts of scanned documents). Here’s a interesting recent example: a student asked if he could simply scan his notes from class and then do a screencast explaining them. They were notes from a day when we were working in class on a particular standard. What was most interesting is that the written notes were all correct but his explanations showed some clear holes in his understanding. It was weird because he would have done better simply reading aloud his own handwriting but instead he tried to embellish, which, of course, I encourage, but those embellishments were not all correct.

    Andy Rundquist

    2011/03/19 at 12:16

    • Good job, Andy’s student! Pushing into the zone of proximal development, making mistakes, embellishing and revealing the limits of your understanding… wow, that is work designed to improve performance! Daniel Coyle talks about practice that is error-laden being very important. If all the practice goes well, then you weren’t working on the edges of your ability, and you can’t extend your capabilities very much that way.

      Mark Hammond

      2011/03/19 at 15:04

  2. My hunch is something like cooking or drawing may be a better example to orient around than swimming. As with science, cooking and drawing change the way you experience (and see) the world. I’m not saying sports do not change perception (I was a college wrestler), but doing sports changed the way I saw myself more than it changed the way I saw the world. Cooking and drawing are product oriented, even when you practice. Is there a product toward which we can orient students when they practice? … just rambling here.


    2011/03/19 at 18:07

    • Good point, Brian. I’m not so much looking for ideas for specific tasks from sports, but just lamenting that I can point to lots of deliberate practice in my swimming coaching, but not as much in my physics teaching. I think looking at drawing is a great idea… I hadn’t thought of that. I’ll be talking to my daughter, the artist!

      Mark Hammond

      2011/03/19 at 21:32

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