Physicists seek to use shame as teaching tool

"And, being made fun of for not knowing the fine structure constant motivated Fermi to get where he is today"

This article about intro physics classes moving away from lecture style teaching has been making the rounds among my physicist/npr-reader friends. My initial take on this was that this is another example of shame being a strong motivator. People don’t want to appear stupid before their peers. Regardless of group, even in very anti-intellectual places (and university isn’t one of those), being an idiot is never cool. It’s just called different things by different groups. Thus Ta-Nehisi Coates’ observation:

I’ve seen so much of what I considered to be “street knowledge” confirmed as simply “knowledge.”

I’ve certainly experienced this shame motivation to succeed at physics first hand. For instance I’ve submitted “Potemkin village” homework sets where the first page was really well done and the other pages almost empty.

I guess a counterargument would be Carl Wieman‘s work at UBC. I don’t really know much about how it’s going, but basically he is a big proponent of the idea that clicker questions are a big boost to learning. Those don’t involve any shame motivation to my knowledge, but are supposedly still helpful. It’d be interesting to compare.

However, both the Mazur approach and the Wieman approach are getting resistance from lecturing professors. Much of that, of course, is the inherent conservatism of life. My undergrad advisor Gren Patey (who I should mention is a really wonderful advisor!), when I was talking to him about Wieman’s work made the point that in many cases while professors want everyone in their class to learn they’re actually less interested in reaching “marginal cases” who they will never see again and will probably go on to have nothing to do with the subject at hand than they are in reaching the already very good and motivated students. Thus, schemes to help students who are struggling receive less enthusiasm than you’d think.

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2 Responses to Physicists seek to use shame as teaching tool

  1. Irvin says:

    Yeah Gren is wonderful! Now he is my advisor~

  2. zolltan says:

    That’s great to hear. You’re in luck (or have excellent advisor choosing skills). Yeah, from what I understand, the combination of someone for whom helping you comes before advancing their career with someone with such good scientific understanding and with being such a pleasant person to talk to is pretty rare.

    How is Gren doing …(with it…)?

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