This is a copy of a recent post to my blog http://sci.waikato.ac.nz/physicsstop
With A-semester exams looming, the students here at Waikato are becoming a little more focused on their work. That inevitably means that I get more of them coming to me after a lecture, or knocking on the door of my office. And that is good.
One of the most common questions I get, usually in relation to an assignment, or a past exam paper, is ‘What equation do I need to solve this?’. I have slowly come to the conclusion (by slow, I mean six years) that when a student says this he actually means the following:
1. I don’t understand this
2. But I don’t mind that I don’t understand, I just need to know what to do to answer the question (and pass the assignment, exam etc.)
It’s the second one that is interesting. Any person can put numbers into an equation and come up with an answer, but it doesn’t necessarily add to their understanding. But unfortunately it can add to their ability to pass examinations, which is what drives students. And giving students that understanding is part of what teaching a Bachelor of Science degree is about. Without it, a student cannot hope to apply your learning to new situations. Remember, that is what real scientists (e.g. physicists) do. No-one gets a science job that involves putting numbers into well established formulae. For example, our graduate profile for a BSc degree says a BSc graduate should have
N.B. I could also say the point is that we, the teachers, need to set decent assignments, that mean stuffing-numbers-into-formulae isn’t sufficient to pass.