Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 9, Issue 1, Article 3 (June, 2008)
Wheijen CHANG
Challenges encountered in implementing constructivist teaching in physics: A qualitative approach

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Results

The results showed both positive and negative opinions throughout the program. Many of the criticisms form opposing ends to the positive appraisal, which was found to dominate. The results are described as follows.

1. Interactive teaching: Stimulating thinking vs. Insufficient Knowledge background;

First, with respect to the teaching approach, while many students expressed their appreciation that the constructivist teaching successfully stimulated their thinking, a few students were concerned about the unsatisfying teaching performance. For example,

Stimulating thinking

  • I appreciate that the group discussion has made learning physics alive, which is very different from the rote-learning skill that I used to adopt. (2004)
  • The worksheets for (group) discussion help us a lot to promote thinking. (2004)
  • The instructor is good at inducing us to think step by step. (2002)
  • (The physics class) provides us with time for group discussion, allows me to listen to what others think as well as to stimulate myself to think more. (2003)

Insufficient Knowledge background

  • I want to know more about the background of the principles and formulas but the content is trivial and is presented as unrelated pieces. (2001A)
  • The pace of the lecturing seems too fast; the explanations need to be clarified further. And I hope that more exercises could be introduced in class. (2002)
  • Some assignments are too hard to solve. Even after reading the solutions, I still have difficulty understanding. Hope that the instructor can explain them briefly in class. (2003)

The responses of students at both ends of the continuum indicate that while constructivist teaching highlights the role of cognitive engagement and overcomes unfavorable preconceptions (based on the personal constructivist view), instructors need to be aware of mediating the students with thorough background knowledge, which is an essential foundation for facilitating effective reasoning (based on the social constructivist view). Therefore, instructors need to grasp the optimum point between inspiring thinking and providing sufficient background knowledge.

2. Interactive teaching: Facilitating conceptual comprehension vs. ineffectiveness;

Second, some students regarded the interactive teaching as beneficial to their conceptual comprehension in contrast to concerns about the ineffectiveness of the teaching in terms of learning achievement. For example,

Facilitating conceptual comprehension

  • (I like) the open-form teaching, which is completely different from the ďbaby-feedingĒ way of teaching in high school. It can make people understand more about the principles, not just the complicated mathematical derivationsÖ I have learnt a lot from it (2000B).
  • I like group discussion, because we can examine whether we really understand the reasons or not through discussion (2001A).
  • he group discussion and the demonstration facilitate our understanding of meanings of the formulas, no need to keep reciting. Group discussion makes us notice how much we know. (2003)

Ineffectiveness

  • donít like group discussion because we may become even more confused through this kind of discussion. (2001A)
  • Some group members lack background knowledge or are hard to communicate with. I wish to join a group with active members (2002)
  • I like the teaching focusing on conceptual clarification, but suggest reduction of group discussion. It wastes too much time and the teacher gives incomplete instruction afterwards (while reviewing the answers). (2004)

While the two groups of students expressed conflicting opinions, their comments also imply different views of learning. The favorable group seemed to comprehend more with a complex learning process. On the other hand, the responses of the opposing group indicate that there are barriers to conducting effective discussion, which include insufficient knowledge to conduct effective dialogue and characteristics of group members. These barriers are surmountable by means of better understanding the studentsí background, and by making modifications to the grouping policy. In line with Heller & Hollabaughís (1992) notion, grouping a variety of abilities and allowing the students partial freedom in selecting group members were adopted by the author from 2001 (Chang, 2005a). (2001A)

3. Interactive teaching: Encourages independence vs. lack of well-organized information;

Third, some students praised the way in which independence is encouraged by the constructivist teaching approach, whereas the other group indicated their desire to receive well-organized information.

Encourages independence

  • I like the time for group discussion, because it is more meaningful to obtain the results from peer discussion than obtaining answers from the teacher. (2001A)

  • Physics can hardly be learnt by simply listening. Only by means of discussion, questioning and exploration, can we excel in physics. (2003)

  • (I like that) there are questions for us to discuss, to think independently and to learn interactively from the classmates. (2003)

Lack of well-organized information

  • The time for instruction allowed me to receive answers. I really like it more than discussionÖ I am more used to receiving knowledge. (2001A)

  • Donít assume that all the students are geniuses; donít keep skipping parts in the handout. Besides, donít ask the students to find the answers of the questions that you donít even know yourself. (2002)

  • Maybe I am used to the didactic way of teaching in high school, I feel it is hard to adjust myself to the current way of teaching, but I donít think of it (the interactive teaching) as a shortcoming. (2004)

The students who comprehended the importance of independent learning were more likely to appreciate the efforts of the teacher on questioning, while students who possessed a transmission view of learning focused on the teacherís information presentation. However, the studentsí skepticism may be alleviated when the quality of the teaching design is improved to allow the students to comprehend the outcomes of the program soon after commencement.

4. Interactive teaching: Cultivating a supportive atmosphere vs. classroom disorder;

Fourth, the atmosphere of the classroom is also an issue of concern to some students. Both positive and negative comments were found. For example,

Cultivating a supportive atmosphere

  • A good feature of the class is that it is vivid and lively. It lets us have space for thinking, not like the monotony of high school physics. (2001A)

  • I appreciate the committed attitude of the teacher and the relaxed classroom atmosphere because I think a good classroom atmosphere is very important to learning. (2001B)

  • I like teaching that lets the classmates discuss and explore the questions in-depth, which also makes the classroom full of laughter and joy. And everyone likes the physics lesson even more. (2003) (2001A)

Classroom disorder

  • The group discussion is quite helpful. We learn a lot from thinking and sharing different ideas. But sometimes the order of the classroom is quite poor. I hope that the students can maintain order. (2000B)

  • The teacher is conscientious about teaching, but sometimes the attitude of dealing with knowledge seems to be frivolous. (2000B)

In order to induce the students’ motivation to participate in discussion, cultivating a supportive atmosphere may be important for teachers. The attempt to manage a friendly atmosphere may affect the classroom organization negatively, or may even change the students’ image of the teacher. Such opposing opinions have not been found since 2001, indicating an improvement in the teaching performance.

5. Real-life examples: cultivating reasoning vs. confusing answers;

With respect to the modification of the teaching content, plenty of real-life examples were introduced by reducing the mathematical derivations of problems and formulas. Many students regarded the modifications as more meaningful than their previous learning, whereas the open-form questions may have increased the difficulty for the instructor to clarify the conceptions. For example,

Cultivating reasoning

  • (I like) the everyday life questions; they are unusual and novel, (which) can stimulate our reasoning ability. (2000B)

  • The teacher can reduce the calculation stuff even more and reduce the time spent deriving formulas because they limit the scope of learning, simply working on numbers. I think physics is to cultivate thinking and understanding of our everyday life. (2001B)

  • The interesting and real life mini labs introduced in class are very inspiring. (2003) The discussion questions are very good. They are relevant to daily life and good for promoting thinking. (2004)

Confusing answers

  • The teacher is sometimes too subjective to accept studentsí answers when those do not match her thoughts. (2001B)

  • I donít like the instruction after discussion, because I canít understand. Sometimes the answers are irrelevant to the questions, hardly explaining the questions. (2001A)

  • While explaining the real-life examples, I found it lacked structure, preventing me from absorbing the material. (2002)

  • What impresses me is the process of demonstrations, but in the end the concepts of the underlying principles remain confusing. (2004)

From the studentsí responses, the real-life questions seemed to be effective in cultivating reasoning. However, real-life phenomena could involve alternative interpretations or entail multiple variables, which may be beyond the teacherís anticipation. This may increase the complexity of the teaching while reviewing the studentsí answers. Meanwhile, verbal interpretations of real world phenomena could be more profound than mathematical derivations, and thus be difficult for the students to understand. Therefore, teachers need to be aware that adoption of everyday life examples greatly increases the teaching demands of both content knowledge and instruction skills (Maclsaac & Falconer 2002), such as how to avoid directly rejecting studentsí responses when their answers are unfavorable.

6. Real-life examples: promoting motivation vs. lowering course standards;

Many students noted that the real-life examples have promoted their interest in learning physics, but a few students were concerned that the reduction of practicing problems may be harmful to the standards of the course. For example,

Promoting motivation

  • Adopting everyday life examples to explain physics theories makes me feel fresh and benefits learning. (2002)

  • The discussion questions are very good. Because they are everyday life examples, they allow us to realize that physics principles are embedded in many interesting phenomena. (2003)

  • The instructor introduces a lot of everyday life examples, thus demonstrating the value of learning physics. (2004) (2000B)

Lowering course standards

  • The strength is that the class is vivid and appealing! But I would hope that the examination questions could provide more calculation problems in order to merge the physics concepts into calculations, not just dealing with new physics concepts plus high school problems. Otherwise, everyone is just playing around with what we already knew. (2001B)
  • Most of the teaching content is relevant to life, and thus reduces the calculation part in return. I feel it is different from my previous learning, which had many practice calculations. Perhaps this is the style for university learning, but it makes me feel that the learning is a bit in vain. (2001B)
  • I feel that the level we are dealing with in the class is far below what appears in the (textbook) problems. I feel discouraged while encountering the difficulties of solving problems. (2003)

According to the quotes, the opposing group did not deny the affective value of introducing real-life examples. However, the reduction of traditional problems and mathematics seemed to raise their concerns about the standard of the course. Complex-forms of mathematics may be more convincing to many people as an indication of the high standard of the course than verbal interpretations of physics concepts. In reflecting on these criticisms, incorporating real-life examples with formulas may help to demonstrate the standard of the course as well as effectively facilitate knowledge construction (Buncick et. al., 2001). The studentsí criticisms have triggered gradual modifications to the authorís ongoing teaching innovations (Chang, 2007). (2001B)

7. Assessment: prefer vs. dislike the open-form assessment;

During the constructivist teaching, the researcher also introduced some open-form assessment in addition to the traditional examinations. These optional alternative assessments included answering challenging questions, independent reading reports, and discussing issues on the teaching web. The students expressed their attitudes about the different types of assessment. For example,

Prefer open-form assessment

  • Reading reports should have the same weight as the examinations. A university education should cultivate studentsí independent learning abilities, otherwise, we will only know how to sit examinations. (2000A)
  • I hope that the teacher can provide us with more Ďchallenge questionsí, as they stimulate my thinking. (2001B)
  • (I like) the supplemented teaching materials and challenge questions, because they can cultivate our thinking ability. (2003) (2002)

Dislike open-form assessment

  • (I donít like) Ďchallenge questionsí, because I donít understand and have no idea at all. Although it is optional I still feel uncomfortable if I donít respond. (2001A)
  • I donít like the optional assignments, because the teacher is too objective, forcing us to spend too much time on those questions which make me feel very stressed. (2001A)
  • The questions for on-line discussion should provide more hints, otherwise we donít know where to start. (2002)

The students who appreciated the open-form assessments were more concerned with the considerations of developing their learning abilities rather than knowledge accumulation. On the other hand, the opposing students may have felt incapable of facing the cognitive challenges or may possess passive learning attitudes. In reflecting on the notions of social constructivism (Driver, et al., 1995; Roth, et al., 1997) and the studentsí criticisms, the researcher has gradually modified the questions mainly by supplementing more hints to guide effective reasoning (Chang, 2005a).

8. Assessment: increasing the difficulty/workload vs. frustrating/overwhelming with the difficulty/workload;

It was found that the students gave disparate responses about the assigned workload. One side expected to increase the difficulty and/or quantity of the workload, while the other felt the course was frustrating and/or overwhelming. For example,

Increasing difficulty/workload

  • The weakness of the course is giving too few assignments. Some students, who genuinely want to learn more, may find it difficult to select some more problems to practice. (2000B)
  • The examination is too easy, it hardly distinguishes between levels. Students learning attitudes are passive. It would be helpful if the teacher could increase the difficulty and quantity of assignments. (2000B)
  • If the examination questions appear to be the same (as what we have discussed in class), it reduces the discrimination. I suggest that the examination can involve a few questions which incorporate many conceptions but are not too complicated. (2004)

Frustrating/overwhelming

  • There is too much homework. In addition to the assignment (of problem-solving) given every week, the teacher also gives quizzes and reading reports, and asks us to discuss questions on the course website. Although some of these are very appealing, the workload is far too much. (2001A)
  • I had reviewed similar questions, but still donít know how to start to answer the examination questions. I have reviewed the handouts over 6000 times, but can still hardly grasp the key points. (2001B)
  • Too difficult! I agree that the examination can include some conceptual questions. But not everyone can comprehend the principles of everyday life phenomena. (2002)

The opposing opinions highlight the challenge for teachers to find an appropriate balance to the assigned workload to satisfy most of the students. The backgrounds and attitudes towards learning varied widely amongst students in the same class. Meanwhile, teachers need to have an in-depth grasp of the studentsí learning pace in order to find the fine line between providing stimulating challenges and undermining the studentsí confidence.

9. Conflicting views;

Lastly, conflicting views were not only found from different students, but also some individuals had conflicting opinions about the course. Some responses were found to include both positive and negative perceptions with respect to the overall innovative teaching design.

  • I appreciate that the lessons provide time for group discussions, but the explanations of the formulas and exercises are insufficient. (2000A)
  • (I donít like) discussion. I donít really dislike it, but since I donít have creative thinking, I am afraid that while others have already thought of a lot, I still have no idea at all. I am scared that I may behave like a good-for-nothing person sitting in class. (2001A)
  • Every lesson has surprises and makes me feel impressed because the instructor uses a lot of equipment. However, to explain these phenomena often requires many extra formulas which make me confused. (2003)
  • The instructor has used a lot of equipment to facilitate our understanding and to reinforce our concepts. But sometimes after the lesson, I still feel confused about the key points. (2003)
  • (With respect to the real-life questions), if you give the questions (repeatedly) in the examinations, everyone will simply recite the answers. That is meaningless. However, if you introduce the challenge (novel) questions in the examinations, students may find them overwhelming. (2004)

While the students appreciated the features of the innovative teaching, including the adoption of interactive teaching and context-rich questions, they were also concerned about the coverage of the information provided and the degree of learning comprehension. These opinions highlight the complexity and sophistication of conducting an innovative teaching program, as well as providing specific suggestions for continuing improvement.

10. Quantitative analysis of positive/negative ratio

Since the author has taken the students’ comments as important guidance to continuously modify her teaching, as illustrated above, it would be meaningful to examine whether the action of continuous teaching modification has alleviated the proportion of negative comments towards the constructivist teaching. Occurrences of positive and negative comments about the teaching, and the percentages of the positive/negative comments to the sum of both were calculated and are presented in Table 2. The transition of the proportion of the opposing opinions is illustrated in Figure 1.

Table 2. Occurrence and percentages of positive and negative comments towards teaching design/performance during the five years of survey

Survey codes

Occurrence of positive comments (%)*

Occurrence of negative comments (%)

2000

97 (73%)

35 (27%)

2001A

76 (66%)

39 (34%)

2002A

90 (68%)

43 (33%)

2003
151 (76%)
49 (25%)

2004

104 (79%)
28 (21%)

*%: indicates the ratio of positive comments to the sum of positive and negative comments

Figure 1: The comparison of the proportions of positive and negative comments in the five years of investigation

Table 2 and Figure 1 show a trend of slight improvement during 2001 to 2004, i.e., the percentages of negative comments has gradually reduced while the positive comments have increased. However, responses in 2000 appear to be (slightly) less skeptical than in the years 2001 and 2002. Most of the students who made negative comments also provided positive comments. Therefore, they might have disagreed with some of the teaching design but they did not reject the course overall.

As discussed above, the studentsí criticism may provide valuable messages for the instructor to modify his/her teaching to better suit most studentsí preferences. However, opposing opinions may be inevitable due to the discrepancy amongst individual studentís ability, learning disposition, and expectations of the course. Therefore, the existence of a small proportion of negative comments should be acceptable.

 


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