About physics and teaching

Spend Time, Dig Deep, Think Hard

with 3 comments

“… spend time, dig deep and think hard…” These are words I used in a response to Rick Fletcher’s comment to my last blog post. We had a little back and forth on when videos seemed to help propel student learning. Then it hit me. I have been asking questions about how and when my students engage in deep practice, and “spend time, dig deep and think hard” perfectly describes deep practice. Maybe all is not lost and I do have some tricks up my sleeve that promote deep practice with my students.

Deep practice in the swimming pool is a bit easier to arrange, and I think that this is what frustrates me. We get out the snorkels and devise drills to isolate head, hand and body position. We use the power rack, power tower and speed assist training to isolate explosive motions. We do lots of threshold work and maxVO2 work every week. And we kick, pull with paddles and swim with flippers, isolating specific sub-skills. We film the kids and post the individual videos (with commentary) that they can watch the very same evening they were videoed. The new swimmers get daily stroke work for most of the practice, with one coach totally dedicated to that lane.

I try to immerse my students in deep practice during class, first so that I can watch them (just like I watch my swimmers), second so that I can give feedback quickly, and third so that I can more carefully design exactly how the time is spent. This deep practice consists of doing experiments, solving large problems in small groups and verbally defending their ideas. Several years ago, homework was where I expected my students to put in all of their hardest practice. Now my students’ evenings are a mix of some necessary (but not too strenuous) skill-building and lots of (very strenuous) self-directed practice and remediation. Evening self-directed practice is necessary because I use standards-based grading, and students are required to address missing learning objectives after our initial formative assessments. And it is this particular practice that worries me.

I suspect that my students’ self-directed practice might not reach the level of useful, deep practice for two reasons. First, I see very uneven results. The proof is in the pudding, right? If the kids aren’t getting better very quickly, then the practice is ineffective for some reason (too little time spent? wrong things being done?). Second, I don’t feel that I am giving them enough good ideas for how to engage in deep practice. I’ve just realized that the videos that I have made for my students are being used by at least a few of the students for deep practice, while my original goal was just to give them a little more help.

From my last post, remember that I make one type of video that isolates small, mechanistic skills. When I hear from a senior who has had vectors in math class for three years tell me that she watched my 4 minute “how to move a vector so that you can subtract vectors graphically” video more times than she could count (and subsequently finally understands what vectors are and how to manipulate them), I hear deep, repetitive practice of an isolated sub-skill.

I also make videos where I solve some big bear of a problem where I talk my way through my thought process, starting from models and fundamental principles. When I overhear two sophomores talking about how many times they had to watch that video before they found the one glitch in their thought process that was keeping them from truly understanding conservation of momentum, I am hearing a description of deep practice.

So here was my initial misconception about these videos: I thought that students would use these videos once and learn something. Yet I never hear any of my students say “I watched that video, now I understand.” They might get enough from one viewing to go back on their own, dig deep and think hard, so I don’t think a single viewing is necessarily worthless. Some of my students may only need this kind of small boost. But it is the students who spent time, dug deep and studied the videos who really got a lot out of the videos. And I really think this works because it is their teacher (someone they have a connection with, someone who is connecting their daily experience in the classroom to the subject of the video) who is making the video. A one-size fits all video from someone who has never attended my class probably wouldn’t inspire the same kind of hard work and time spent.


Written by Mark Hammond

2011/06/20 at 09:29

3 Responses

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  1. Fantastic, Mark, I love how you’re really put some thought into the impact of your vids. The way you describe the multiple viewings for deep practice (which, I know, doesn’t always happen, but still!) is a great re-framing of the issue of the utility of vids (or scasts, as Joss Ives likes to say ;-)

    I, too, have heard students talk about needing to view things multiple times. Others bring their laptop into class to check things in the scasts as we try a harder group problem.

    Finally, on your note about who makes the scasts, I really agree. People have asked about leveraging the fact that so many people are doing it and I always think to myself that I’m perfectly happy doing them myself. The connection you talk about with your students is the key, as you say.

    I’ve also thought about what’ll happen when I teach a course again where there’s already a good set of scasts for the material. I think I’ll give them links to those but I’m pretty sure I’ll add more, to make sure I’m addressing the current students’ needs.

    Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

    2011/06/20 at 09:45

  2. Okay, I just wrote a three or four paragraph reply to this post, but then I screwed something up and deleted it before posting it. Shoot. But maybe I’ll just write my own post in response instead.

    Kelly O'Shea

    2011/07/04 at 11:23

  3. […] reread Mark’s post on deliberate practice, and something about it keeps bothering me*. His descriptions of practice in swimming almost all […]

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