26 May 2011

Book Review and Philosophical Comments: Regents Physics Essentials by Dan Fullerton

Dan Fullerton emailed me a few weeks ago asking for me to review his new Regents prep book.  As he offered to send me a free copy, I readily said yes.  I might even have guaranteed a glowing review had he included a can of Skyline Chili.

I knew I was predisposed to like the book simply because Dan is a physics teacher.  Check the authorship of a prep book before you buy it.  If the book is not attributed specifically and predominantly to a high school physics teacher, be skeptical.  Graduate students and freelance physics writers do not necessarily have the same perspective about what students need to know, and how to present that information. 

Consider what students need from a test review book.  They have taken a physics course all year, with or without a strong teacher.  The review book is for catching up on material that might not have been covered in class; for providing reminders of topics from early in the year; and for providing practice problems and tests.  

From the student perspective, this is an excellent book.   Since the Regents Physics tests (with answers!) are easily available publicly, a prep book for students must go beyond just presenting practice problems.  And, since students have a textbook that already tried to explain the material, a prep book must give concise topic reviews, and then specific and clear explanations for each answer.  Dan's book does this, in spades. 

Each of the bazillions of practice questions is followed immediately by the answer, along with a brief but thorough justification.  I couldn't ask for more.

From the teacher's perspective:  I'd recommend this book as a solid resource for general-level physics teachers, whether or not the New York Regents exam is part of your curriculum.  Here's where I experienced some philosophical angst, so I'll explain thoroughly.

Regular blog readers will notice that while I share my assignments and teaching ideas freely, I don't tend to post solutions to the problems that I pose.  An enormous -- and too often ignored -- part of teaching physics is knowing the subject matter cold.  My high school students are regularly amazed at my ability to solve introductory-level physics problems on sight.  I try to explain that it's not that I'm smarter than they are, it's that I've been solving these kinds of physics problems ever since I started teaching in 1996.  I never rely on a solution manual for answers; I work through every problem myself.*  I recommend to all physics teachers that they do the same, even if that's tough at first, even if they occasionally have to rescore a multiple choice key.  I know I've had to rescore my share of tests.

*Using AP-style rubrics for grading open response items is not "relying on a solution manual" -- in order to understand the rubric, you have to work through the solution! 

My colleague Alex, who's in his second year of physics teaching noted how wonderful this book was because it provided access to solutions -- not just answers, but explanations.  And he made me pause for thought.

I remember how many times, especially in my first few years, that I could get an answer right without being able to form a coherent and straightforward explanation that a student would listen to.  It took years of experience to bring explanations down from the M.S. level to the high school level.  Alex works his rear end off preparing for classes and writing tests.  If he's going to use a question from this prep book on one of his tests, he's going to solve the problem.  But, he wants to have the book available in case he gets tongue-tied with an explanation.

The point that Alex DIDN'T make but he might have:  How many times is a newish physics teacher faced with a know-it-all student trying to make a tortured, lawerly argument that he should be given credit for an answer that the teacher knows is wrong?  This prep book has detailed enough answers that it can be used as an authority.  "Shut up, kid, and look at this detailed solution.  I'm right."  Obviously this approach is a last resort for a student who simply will not listen to reason.  However, that happened to me enough times that I know how useful the authoritativeness of this prep book's explanations can be.

Dan Fullerton's book is the size of a novel, and is paperback.  The size limits the layout possibilities, so that the text looks dense and it's difficult to thumb through to look for things.  (That's the only weakness we noticed.)  Diagrams are clear; the graphics are humorously drawn and appropriate. 

If my kid were taking Regents Physics, I'd buy this for him; if I were teaching Regents Physics for the first time, I would want this book available to me.



  1. Thank you for taking the time to look over and review APlusPhysics: Your Guide to Regents Physics Essentials, and especially for your thoughtful critique.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly -- the most important lesson I learned in my first year of teaching was to never give a student a problem I hadn't solved in advance (a lesson I learned, of course, the hard and embarrassing way!)

    And now that you've mentioned Skyline Chili, my mouth is watering so I think I'll head to the kitchen to dig up something tasty.

  2. Einstein said “God doesn’t play dice” but much of mother nature can be emulated with a random number generator. Are there “Physics Foibles”? Numbers are the Supreme Court of science. What would Godel say?