Figure 2 paired problems compare students ability to

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Unformatted text preview: es shows that only 10% answered correctly. Figure 2. Paired problems compare students’ ability to calculate quantitative answers with their conceptual understanding. (a) Students were asked, “For the circuit shown, calculate (a) the current in the 2-W resistor and (b) the potential difference between points P and Q.” The average score of 69% on the question indicates that most of them were able to calculate the currents and voltages in this moderately complex DC circuit. (b) Those same students performed much worse (average score of 49%) when asked to explain what happens qualitatively to, for instance, the brightness of these light bulbs and the current drawn from the battery when you close the switch S—questions that seem far simpler to any physicist. The message is that students can answer traditional test questions without really understanding basic physics concepts or mastering concept-based problem-solving approaches. (Adapted from ref. 8, with permission of the publisher.) Research on learning has provided results that both explain many of the disappointing results of traditional instruction and provide guidance as to how to improve. We present three examples here, chosen in part because they are relatively easy to use throughout the standard curriculum and classroom setting. Numerous other examples, including many about specific physics topics, are given in references 3–5. Cognitive research shows that the amount of new material presented in a typical class is far more than a typical person can process or learn. People’s brains function in a way somewhat analogous to a personal computer with very limited random-access memory. The more things the brain is given to process at the same time—the cognitive 38 November 2005 Physics Today load—the less effectively it can process anything12 (see figure 4). Any additional cognitive load, no matter what form it takes, will limit people’s abilities to mentally process and learn new ideas. This is one of the most well-established and widely violated principles in education, including by many education researchers in their presentations. Cognitive load has important implications for both classroom teaching and technical talks. To maximize learning, instructors must minimize cognitive load by limiting the amount of material presented, having a clear organizational structure to the presentation, linking new material to ideas that the audience already knows, and avoiding unfamiliar technical terminology and interesting little digressions. Expert competence5,12 is a primary goal of education and is another area in which research has provided useful insights. Expert competence has been found to have roughly two parts: factual knowledge and an organizational structure that allows the expert to effectively retrieve and apply those facts. Organizing physics ideas around general concepts is part of building such a structure. If students do not have a suitable organizational structure, simp...
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