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The "Write" Path To Effective Student Understanding In Physics

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Innovations in Teaching Physics or Engineering Physics

Tagged Division

Engineering Physics & Physics

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1203.1 - 15.1203.12

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Paper Authors

author page

Teresa Larkin American University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

The “Write” Path to Effective Student Understanding in Physics


The active process of writing has been shown to serve as an effective tool to improve the quality of student learning. While the benefits of a writing approach have been documented, it is often very challenging to implement in a physics classroom. In a physics classroom the focus is typically on having students solve problems. Problem solving is clearly critical in terms of helping students understand physics. Unfortunately, students often don’t realize the flaws in their thinking until after a quiz or exam has been graded and returned to them. At that point, it is already too late for students to adjust their flawed thinking and demonstrate their revised understanding of a particular topic or concept in physics. A number of studies in physics education have presented the challenges that novice students often face when learning to solve problems in a physics class. Writing exercises can help students elicit and confront the misconceptions they often harbor (as a result of their own life’s experiences related to the physical world) while the learning is actually taking place. This paper will describe an effective and time-efficient strategy that allows instructors to utilize writing in their classrooms to help students get a deeper and more robust understanding of physics. This strategy, known as free- writing, has been used with introductory physics students at American University for a number of years. The free-writing activities have been shown to help students uncover gaps in their understanding in a challenging, yet non-threatening way; and, to allow students to correct flaws in their thinking before they have lost points on a quiz or exam. An example of a specific writing activity developed for use in the introductory physics classroom will be shared. In addition, samples of students’ writing will be presented to illustrate typical misconceptions and to provide documentation for the need to develop techniques that encourage students to confront their misconceptions. Responding to students’ written work in a timely fashion is especially challenging for those that teach large classes. Time-efficient writing assessment strategies will be highlighted with a focus on how writing can be used with a minimal investment of time. Finally, the importance of effective instructor feedback will be discussed along with ways to provide that feedback in such a way that students have time to adjust their thinking while the learning is actually taking place.


A primary purpose of teaching is to promote and enhance student learning. However, traditional teaching methodologies have clearly been shown to put students in a role of passive rather than active learning [1]. Traditional instructional methods have also been shown to be very inadequate in terms of promoting deep learning and long-term retention of important concepts. Students in traditional classrooms acquire most of their “knowledge” through classroom lectures, textbook reading, and the internet. A troubling fact is, after instruction, students often emerge from our classes with serious misconceptions [2 - 6]. In recent years, a number of writing techniques have evolved that make use of various writing-to-learn strategies within the domains of engineering, mathematics, and the sciences [7 - 16]. The use of writing in introductory classes for non-majors can be an effective vehicle for allowing students to enhance their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Writing can also assist students with the identification and confrontation of personal misconceptions [17].

Larkin, T. (2010, June), The "Write" Path To Effective Student Understanding In Physics Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky.

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