A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Lecture Hall…

As I strode across campus to meet my second-year physics students in our Electricity and Magnetism class a few years ago, it suddenly struck me that I had the makings of a fantastic opportunity tucked under my arm. My teaching assistant had returned their last assignment of the semester to me, so I quickly formulated my plan. As I entered the room and prepped for our session, I projected a stern and serious air, quite unlike my usual smiley/jokey self. As everyone settled down, I told them that I was very disappointed to hear from our TA that there had been a considerable amount of ‘sharing’ in the assignments that had been submitted, which is completely unacceptable. I told the class that I wanted them to take out a piece of paper immediately and work through the solution to one question again, individually, right then and there.

There was much muttering and sharing of furtive looks around the room, but everyone complied as I projected the question onto the screen with the document camera. One or two students looked at me suspiciously, but I maintained my grave look and told them to get started. After a few minutes, I said to the class: “Please make sure you write your name and the date on the page …. today is April 1st.” As my students slowly looked up at me, realization dawning on their faces, I shouted: “APRIL FOOLS!” It took a good 10 minutes before we were all settled down again and ready to discuss the physics of magnetic materials, but I maintain that it was 10 minutes well spent.

Incentivize Lecture Attendance

Study after study has demonstrated the value of a ‘flipped’ classroom, in which students engage with each other and the instructor in meaningful and deep learning activities (1,2). This little April Fools’ prank was certainly not such an activity, but it is a good example of the value of being a little silly with your students: it incentivizes lecture attendance. Step one for maximizing classroom engagement is to make your session an adventure, an event that students don’t want to miss because they never know what might happen. You care about their learning, you go to great lengths to fine-tune your pedagogy based on current physics-education research, but you need to get them out of bed and through the classroom door for all your hard work to pay off!

This is something I have struggled with during the pandemic with all my teaching done remotely. Being jokey and improvisational with my students has been incredibly difficult when only a tiny fraction of the class turns their camera and/or mic on – it is almost impossible to ‘read the room’ in Zoom. Even with these challenges, it seems more important than ever to find ways to inject some levity given the state of the world around us: I’m a firm believer in the notion that laughter truly is the best medicine. So, after grumbling about the countless ways in which technology foils my best-laid plans for an engaging virtual class, I decided to take advantage of the humour in the farcical: my students and I created a bingo game based on the myriad ways in which our sessions go sideways! (A spherical cow stress ball, pictured below, is the prize for completing a row or column.)

Break Down Barriers

In addition to incentivizing lecture attendance, injecting humour into our sessions also helps to break down barriers between my students and me. As evidenced by our bingo card, my humour tends towards the self-deprecating kind, which subtly communicates to my class that I really don’t take myself too seriously. I want my classroom to be a safe haven, where students can ask questions to each other and to me without worrying about being judged. No one, including me, has all the answers or is right all the time; mistakes are the best opportunities for learning.

So, rather than projecting an air of unassailable authority, one who, for example, would never drop a negative sign, I celebrate these moments with my students with Smarties. As we work through an example together, I want them to be trying to follow along with each step as we go, rather than just passively writing it all down to figure out later (i.e. the night before the next test). In our sessions, everyone is on high alert because the first person to catch a mistake, such as that inevitable loss of a pesky negative sign, is rewarded with a box of Smarties. Usually, in our face-to-face sessions, I have a couple of boxes in my laptop bag to hand out on the spot. With remote teaching I had to find a work-around and now I keep a running tally during the semester on my Smarties List, with payout at the end of term. This year, since I was actually keeping track, I added a personalized Smarties certificate to this special delivery, with one pictured below on proud display on the family fridge door! Students seemed to really appreciate the personalized touch so I’m keeping this new tradition going even after we are back in face-to-face sessions. (FYI, if you want to adopt this approach, definitely have extra boxes on hand if you need to teach after taking cold medication. Just saying.)

A COVID-inspired modification to my use of SmartiesTM in class to encourage careful scrutiny during our in-class examples as well as to normalize mistakes.

Improve Student Attitudes

I am not a stand-up comic in academic regalia. But you don’t have to be hysterical to make good use of humour in the classroom and it can have a profound effect on students’ attitudes. A recent study looked at the effect of a positive attitude towards math and the brain’s ability to learn and remember (3). The study concluded that even when they controlled for IQ, working memory, math anxiety, general anxiety and general attitude toward academics, children with poor attitudes toward math rarely performed well in the subject. And, let’s face it, in our big first-year service courses there are a lot of incoming students who do not have a positive attitude towards physics. In addition to teaching second-year Electricity & Magnetism to physics majors, a preacher to the converted, I frequently find myself in front of hundreds of first-year biology students, which is more like being an emissary to a hostile nation. In my very first lecture every year, I ask them to tell me how they are feeling about taking this course using their clickers to respond anonymously, and the breakdown invariably looks like this:

Typical responses from first-semester biology students who are required to take my introductory physics course.

There are times when there are identically zero responses in the “excited” category. In a room full of 400 students. *sigh* Making a concerted effort to help shift our students’ attitudes towards the subject is key to opening the door for them to do well, as that positive attitude results in enhanced memory and more efficient engagement of the brain’s problem-solving capacities according to the work of the team at Stanford (3).

A Little Goes a Long Way

Whenever I can I’m injecting little scenarios to make students smile. We work through a lot of example problems in class and I try to give them a little twist. For example, in free fall calculations, we work through a problem in which “Gord is spitting (sunflower seeds) from a bridge. Just to see how far down it really is.” This precise turn of phrase won’t mean much to non-Canadian readers, but this is a line from a Tragically Hip song, a hugely popular band that appeals across generations. The delivery is important when I read the question aloud and, although not everyone will get the reference, there are plenty of smiles around the room. We have also been known to analyze the position versus time graph of someone canoeing across a lake to an island where they suddenly encounter a mumma bear and her cub, as well as determining how far across an ice floe a sweet little penguin will slide before coming to a stop. This sometimes leads to a discussion on how one would experimentally determine the coefficient of kinetic friction between a penguin’s belly and an icy surface in terms of the factors one would have to control for, but I digress.

I am always looking for opportunities for student engagement and these often take the form of multiple-choice conceptual questions to use in the peer instruction mode of delivery, originally popularized by Eric Mazur at Harvard (4). I ask a question, students vote individually and we see the results. They then chat about their choices and vote again, after which we have a discussion about the correct answer (and, often, why the incorrect answers are wrong). Throwing a ridiculous choice or fun scenario into the mix often lightens the mood, like the following question that I pose as we start talking about conservation of momentum right around Halloween:

Two physicists decide to blow up a pumpkin. When it explodes, it splits into 3 pieces of equal mass, as shown from above in the illustration here. What is the direction of the velocity of the third piece?

(Yes, the image here is a still from a video that my colleague Chris and I made of blowing up a pumpkin with a bottle of liquid nitrogen!)

I like to couple our peer-instruction discussions with demonstrations, trying to include student helpers whenever possible. I always structure these as Predict-Observe-Explain, where students vote on what they think will happen, the demonstration/experiment is conducted, and then we discuss what happened and why. A popular one we do when talking about resistors in series and in parallel is the smoothie race – a head-to-head student battle with two straws in series vs. two straws in parallel to see which “battery” generates the greater current. This is a fun way to visualize currents/batteries/resistors as well as another good opportunity to discuss experimental design. But just as importantly, there is lots of cheering and laughter; a spoonful of sugar to help the physics go down!

The great smoothie race: an in-class demonstration of the difference between resistors in series and in parallel.

Every teacher develops their own style with practice and guidance, and I had the good fortune to be mentored by exceptional educators as I began to shape mine at the University of Guelph almost 20 years ago. I learned from some of the best in the business that humour is a powerful tool in the lecture hall for incentivizing class attendance, creating a welcoming environment, and improving student attitudes. To my mind, there is always room for a little tomfoolery in teaching physics!

References:

  1. F Finkenberg and T Trefzger 2019 Flipped classroom in secondary school physics education J. Phys.: Conf. Ser. 1286 012015
  2. David C.D. van Alten, Chris Phielix, Jeroen Janssen, Liesbeth Kester 2019 Effects of flipping the classroom on learning outcomes and satisfaction: A meta-analysis Educational Research Review 28 100281 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2019.05.003
  3. Chen L, Bae SR, Battista C, et al. Positive Attitude Toward Math Supports Early Academic Success: Behavioral Evidence and Neurocognitive Mechanisms. Psychological Science. 2018;29(3):390-402. doi:10.1177/0956797617735528
  4. Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual | mazur (harvard.edu)

Published by joanneomeara

Professor, Department of Physics, University of Guelph

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