Several high school physics teachers have recently asked me what physics professors want students to learn in high school physics courses. I discussed this with my colleagues in the FSU studio physics program, and came up with the answer given here. Of course, we all use inquiry in our introductory courses, and this colors my response – you might get a somewhat different answer from colleagues who teach primarily in the lecture mode.
We are looking for three things. First, we want our students to enter the course understanding that learning science is about gaining a deep understanding of how things work, and not memorizing equations and factoids. This is a particular problem among our biology majors. In fact, it is such a problem with this group that our learning gains in the studio classes with biology majors are not any larger than they are in the lecture courses, and are only half the gains we achieve with the majors in math and the physical sciences. Biology majors resist inquiry.
Second, we want our students to have a deep understanding of the most basic concepts of force and energy. If they have this understanding in the mechanical context, we can work on the E&M context.
Third, students should understand that these concepts can be expressed in mathematical language, and should have some facility in doing so. Of course, this is very different from saying that we want them to have a certain number of equations in their heads.
We actually use the Force Concept Inventory to pretest the students in the studio physics program. If you are familiar with it, then it will mean something when I say that we consider a student who pretests at 20 correct answers (out of 31 total) to be well-prepared. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often. Our students who have taken a standard or honors physics class (and not an AP Physics class) average about 11 correct answers on the pre-test. Those who say they didn’t take any high school physics average 10 correct answers.
If a student has a good conceptual understanding, we can grind them on the math – and have done so often. But there isn’t much we can do for a student who remains convinced that she or he should memorize her or his way through physics – our results with such students are generally poor.