December 7, 2023

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It’s Time to Break Bad Pandemic Learning Habits

3 min read

In the end, I let my students take photos, because there’s a chance they might actually use the pictures in a practical way. Also, banning phones would mean that I couldn’t have any phone-based classroom activities, and it might send the wrong message that I have all the answers and the students need to earn those answers through hard work. Instead, the answers are just the tip of the iceberg.

But if you’re a student heading back to school in January, and your teacher allows phones in class, my advice would be to take pictures if you need to save something off the board. But don’t stop there. Force yourself to go back and work through any problems or solutions from those pictures. Treat the photo as the beginning of the learning process, not the end.

Online Answers

There’s another place where the students’ focus on answers—instead of the learning process—is clearly visible: websites that give solutions to physics problems. During the pandemic, students took advantage of these more often, because more assessment was moved to an online form, which makes it easier to cheat. And because these sites are becoming more popular, there are now more of them. This makes me sad. The problem is that students can just copy a solution without understanding it, and it’s all too obvious that many times this is exactly what happens.

Consider the following very common projectile-motion problem that is covered in just about every physics textbook: A ball is launched horizontally off a table that is 1.2 meters above the floor, and it hits 1.7 meters from the starting point. What is the launch velocity of the ball?

The problem is normally solved by looking at the horizontal and vertical motions separately. (That’s the cool part of projectile motion.) Just about every textbook calls the horizontal velocity vx and the vertical velocity vy. So, when a student submits a solution using u for the horizontal velocity and u’ (called u-prime) for the vertical velocity, it just looks weird. Why would they pick those symbols for the variables? You know why: They found the answer online.

You might think that if instructors assigned unique physics problems, the students would actually create their own solutions. That doesn’t work. I can make something weird (and honestly quite fun) for a physics question, but students post it online within hours. It would actually be funny if it weren’t so bad for learning. And even worse, someone is making serious money from these online solutions, which often require a subscription to their services.

If you’re a student who is tempted to use online answers, I’d urge you to use them only to work through a part of a problem that you are stuck on or to double-check that you’ve understood the problem correctly.

Attending Class

There’s one more thing that students have a problem with lately—going to class.

Online learning isn’t all bad; in fact, for some learners, it offers opportunities that weren’t there before. Videos can help students keep up with class—well, if they actually watch them—and they provide an opportunity to review material that was perhaps a bit confusing. Going remote gives students a certain amount of flexibility to compensate for things that happen in real life, like catching the flu or getting a flat tire. Life happens, and it would be a shame to miss out on school. And it can be a bonus in Louisiana: When we have to cancel class because of a hurricane (yes, that happens), we won’t lose much class time since we can just switch to an online mode.


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