For the past year, three other physics teachers and I have been investigating how explicitly teaching an expert-like approach in problem solving affects students in a modeling based physics classroom. We presented our findings Friday July 20th at Arizona State University and our report is, at last, complete!
We didn’t find anything groundbreaking. Unlike many larger/more popular educational innovations, our conclusions are conservative. Although we believe what we did has the potential to be beneficial to some students, we don’t claim it’s a silver bullet. In fact, we found that for students who didn’t build a strong conceptual understanding in physics, our explicit emphasis on problem solving was not beneficial.
Few people will likely be interested in reading our entire paper (it’s quite long!), but some may be interested in selected parts. I’ve posted our paper, Effects of Emphasizing Intentional Problems Solving here.
Here is our abstract:
Students begin their education in physics as novice problems solvers. Instead of carefully defining a problem, using qualitative models, and planning a method of solution, students often immediately attempt to find the answer to the problem. The result of this lack of methodical approach is that students are not only unable to solve problems, they are unsure of even the basic steps that lead toward solutions. Previous research has shown that intentionally teaching expert-like strategies increases students’ problem solving ability. Other studies have found that Modeling Instruction improves students’ expert-like problem solving ability. This study was initiated to evaluate the impact on students’ problem solving skills through teaching explicit problem solving strategies in addition to Modeling Instruction. There was no conclusive evidence that the gains from the two methods were additive; however, this approach was reported to be beneficial by study participants. There was substantial evidence that without a solid conceptual understanding, expert-like problem solving ability was limited.
I liked the second half of this book slightly more than the first. It was a little more specific. One thing I was struck by while reading through the second half is how much PBL and modeling instruction have in common. For example, both emphasize asking good questions. Modeling recommends Socratic technique while PBL seems to advocate for complex, content-rich questions. Either way, the intention is to promote higher order thinking.
Another similarity between modeling and PBL is that both are extremely student centered. In both, teachers act as facilitators instead of sources of knowledge. In both, students are tasked with actively constructing meaning instead of passively consuming. Additionally both seem to sacrifice some breadth for richness and depth.
However there are some differences too. Especially for subjects like physics, chemistry, and math modeling offers one core methodology and curriculum instead of the seemly vast forest of resources for PBL. Both philosophies have advantages, but especially for the new modeler it’s nice to have access to a source of materials that are always high quality as with modeling. The other advantage of the core curriculum is that it is constantly being improved not just by a few physics teachers, but hundreds of physics teachers (I’ve even contributed a few small things). The more un-structured approach to curriculum materials for PBL does offer ton’s of variety though!