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16 May 2018

Chimera: The skill of learning from a textbook

I was asked whether I still use just fact sheets, or whether I encourage the use of a textbook like OpenStax.

I'm still using fact sheets, and nothing but fact sheets. 

Many people have argued with me that they want to promote learning new physics from a textbook.  Reading a textbook is a skill, one that seems to be demanded in college physics courses.  Fact sheets and videos, they argue, eliminate textbook learning.

True.  And I desperately want to eliminate textbook learning.  

Textbooks are interesting and useful and fun to read for those who already have context.  In history, where the vocabulary and general situations (kings, wars, human conflict and leadership, etc) it's easy to learn from a textbook.  Life science texts with outstanding diagrams can lead to good learning.  Even language texts can be strong, especially if they include easily navigated glossaries and grammatical summary tables.

Physics cannot be learned from a textbook, I don't think.  Instead, students can learn facts from a fact sheet by rote. Then they can learn the skills of applying those facts to interesting situations, and experimental skills in lab, and how experiment connects to prediction... and finally, at the end of the year, students can go read a textbook successfully because they have the context for understanding.  

I think that process holds in first year physics as well as advanced physics - everyone I knew struggled to understand our quantum text, or advanced fluids text, or advanced E&M text.  I thought I was stupid because I couldn't read and understand the textbook.  My friends either also thought they were stupid, or thumped their chest and pretended to understand.  

We all figured these subjects out eventually, as we did problems and learned facts from our teacher and practiced with each other.  But the idea that it's a useful or even attainable skill to read a text and understand new physics the first time you read it?  Utter baloney, in my mind.  :-)

1 comment:

  1. I agree that the text is not terribly useful for a first go at material. My students confessed they have so much going on in their classes and saw very little gain from the effort put into learning from a text that they opted to “take the L” on the reading quizzes and just focus on things that they actually understood.

    I have been planning on making fact sheets this year of the memorizable principles. Do you have any suggestions for good sheets already accessible I can use as a starting point?