Even in a course like this you may still be floundering because you may not understand why it
is important for you to participate with your whole spirit in the quest to learn anything you ever
choose to study. In a word, you simply may not give a rodent’s furry behind about learning the
material so that studying is always a fight with yourself to “make” yourself do it – so that no matter
what happens, you lose. This too may sound very familiar to some.
The importance of engagement and participation in “active learning” (as opposed to passively
being taught) is not really a new idea. Medical schools were four year programs in the year 1900.
They are four year programs today, where the amount of information that a physician must now
master in those four years is probably ten times greater today than it was back then. Medical
students are necessarily among the most efficient learners on earth, or they simply cannot survive.
In medical schools, the optimal learning strategy is compressed to a three-step adage: See one,
do one, teach one.
See a procedure (done by a trained expert).
Do the procedure yourself, with the direct supervision and guidance of a trained expert.
Teach a student to do the procedure.
See, do, teach. Now you are a trained expert (of sorts), or at least so we devoutly hope, because
that’s all the training you are likely to get until you start doing the procedure over and over again
with real humans and with limited oversight from an attending physician with too many other things
to do. So you practice and study on your own until you achieve real mastery, because a mistake can
This recipe is quite general, and can be used to increase your own learning in almost any class.
In fact, lifelong success in learning with or without the guidance of a good teacher is a matter of
discovering the importance of active engagement and participation that this recipe (non-uniquely)
encodes. Let us rank learning methodologies in terms of “probable degree of active engagement of
the student”. By probable I mean the degree of active engagement that I as an instructor have
observed in students over many years and which is significantly reinforced by research in teaching
methodology, especially in physics and mathematics.
Listening to a lecture as a transcription machine with your brain in “copy machine” mode is
almost entirely passive and is for most students probably a nearly complete waste of time. That’s
not to say that “lecture” in the form of an organized presentation and review of the material to be
learned isn’t important or is completely useless! It serves one very important purpose in the grand
scheme of learning, but by being passive during lecture you cause it to fail in its purpose. Its purpose
is not to give you a complete, line by line transcription of the words of your instructor to ponder
later and alone. It is to convey, for a brief shining moment, the sense of the concepts so that you
It is difficult to sufficiently emphasize this point. If lecture doesn’t make sense to you when the
instructor presents it, you will have to work much harder to achieve the sense of the material “later”,
if later ever comes at all. If you fail to identify the important concepts during the presentation
and see the lecture as a string of disconnected facts, you will have to remember each fact as if it
were an abstract string of symbols, placing impossible demands on your memory even if you are
extraordinarily bright. If you fail to achieve some degree of understanding (or synthesis of the
material, if you prefer) in lecture by asking questions and getting expert explanations on the spot,
you will have to build it later out of your notes on a set of abstract symbols that made no sense to
you at the time. You might as well be trying to translate Egyptian Hieroglyphs without a Rosetta
Stone, and the best of luck to you with that.
Reading is a bit more active – at the very least your brain is more likely to be somewhat engaged if
you aren’t “just” transcribing the book onto a piece of paper or letting the words and symbols happen
in your mind – but is still pretty passive. Even watching nifty movies or cool-ee-oh demonstrations
See, Do, Teach
If you are reading this, I assume that you are either taking a course in physics or wish to learn physics
on your own. If this is the case, I want to begin by teaching you the importance of your personal
engagement in the learning process. If it comes right down to it, how well you learn physics, how
good a grade you get, and how much fun you have all depend on how enthusiastically you tackle
the learning process. If you remain disengaged, detatched from the learning process, you almost
certainly will do poorly and be miserable while doing it. If you can find any degree of engagement
– or open enthusiasm – with the learning process you will very likely do well, or at least as well as
Note that I use the term learning, not teaching – this is to emphasize from the beginning that
learning is a choice and that you are in control. Learning is active; being taught is passive. It is up
to you to seize control of your own educational process and fully participate, not sit back and wait
for knowledge to be forcibly injected into your brain.
You may find yourself stuck in a course that is taught in a traditional way, by an instructor that
lectures, assigns some readings, and maybe on a good day puts on a little dog-and-pony show in
the classroom with some audiovisual aids or some demonstrations. The standard expectation in this
class is to sit in your chair and watch, passive, taking notes. No real engagement is “required” by
the instructor, and lacking activities or a structure that encourages it, you lapse into becoming a
lecture transcription machine, recording all kinds of things that make no immediate sense to you
and telling yourself that you’ll sort it all out later.
You may find yourself floundering in such a class – for good reason. The instructor presents an
ocean of material in each lecture, and you’re going to actually retain at most a few cupfuls of it
functioning as a scribe and passively copying his pictures and symbols without first extracting their
sense. And the lecture makes little sense, at least at first, and reading (if you do any reading at all)
does little to help. Demonstrations can sometimes make one or two ideas come clear, but only at
the expense of twenty other things that the instructor now has no time to cover and expects you
to get from the readings alone. You continually postpone going over the lectures and readings to
understand the material any more than is strictly required to do the homework, until one day a big
test draws nigh and you realize that you really don’t understand anything and have forgotten most
of what you did, briefly, understand. Doom and destruction loom.
On the other hand, you may be in a course where the instructor has structured the course with
a balanced mix of open lecture (held as a freeform discussion where questions aren’t just encouraged
but required) and group interactive learning situations such as a carefully structured recitation and
lab where discussion and doing blend together, where students teach each other and use what they
have learned in many ways and contexts. If so, you’re lucky, but luck only goes so far.