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The High School Physics Classroom: Tips for Student / Teacher Success

Teaching physics involves not only a presentation of the topics in general physics, it also involves an introduction to thinking abstractly and problem solving. The ultimate goal is to give students basic concepts in a way that allows them to apply those concepts creatively, enabling students to turn imagination into reality.

To provide for the best possible learning experience for your students in the high school physics classroom, follow these three tips:

  1. The physics classroom should be set up to produce independent learners; students that are excited to learn and feed their own curiosity.
  2. Present your lessons as a connected set of concepts and principles rather than just a series of discrete equations and ideas. Students need to see how physics connects to the real world.
  3. Students need to learn to question and collect data and to feel comfortable enough to allow their findings to alter the way they think about the world around them.

Your classroom is a place to present information and provide hands-on experience through labs.

  1. Labs engage students physically as well as mentally.  
  2. Students learn about data:
    1. How to collect it (making readings that include the concepts of accuracy and uncertainty).
    2. How to question the reliability of their data.
    3. How to look at both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of their lab.
    4. How to turn data into useful information.
  3. Students learn how to express their observations, conclusions and predictions through formal lab reports using language, diagrams, pictures and mathematical expressions.  

Open ended labs get students to apply their knowledge in creative ways to answer the questions being asked.  Open ended labs require students to:

  1. Make hypotheses.
  2. Design the experiment.
  3. Make predictions based on their hypothesis and experimental design.
  4. Choose their variables (independent and dependent).
  5. Determine how to analyze the results.
  6. Draw conclusions

One example of an open ended lab might be; “How does the amount of water in a water rocket effect its height of travel?”  Here we have posed a very direct question with the potential for some interesting experimental designs.  Students start with the basics and research to understand the purpose for both water and air in the rockets fuselage as well as understand the design parameters of the rocket itself.  Variables like rocket volume, rocket diameter, water volume, launch pressure, nozzle size, drag, etc. all play roles in the outcome of their experiment.  Students are free to approach the question in whatever fashion they wish based upon their research.

How do I assess such an activity? Stronger students present problem solving skills based on an understanding of the concepts and principles of physics. They also bring a well developed understanding of how all the pieces of their knowledge play together. Those pieces not only include physics but also their understanding of the world through many different disciplines. On the opposite end of the spectrum, weaker students demonstrate problem solving that is based on superficial mathematical operations with little to no analytical skills.  

Key to the students understanding of how they are assessed are rubrics.  For everything that is graded I strongly recommend having a rubric that is reviewed with the class at the start of the school year.  Rubrics tell the students what is expected, help them understand the grade they received and where they need to focus to improve.

The physics classroom should present a learning experience where teacher and student work together and lecture and labs go hand-in-hand.

I hope you find this guide useful when setting up your physics classroom! If you have any questions, please use the comment section below! I’m happy to help.

Ray Cirmo

Written by Ray Cirmo

Ray Cirmo currently teaches physics at Cheshire Academy.

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