Let me set a scene. It’s just after a physics class in which students wrestled with a complicated idea. Perhaps they measured the electrical current in different resistors and must build a mathematical relationship between change in potential, resistance, and electric current. In the particular, the students might be discussing what happens to the total current coming from a battery when they add a fourth lightbulb in parallel. Here’s something you might hear after class:
“I’m just not very good with the science in this class. I’m much better when everything is clear cut–like in biology. In that case you know the answer. But here, you collect data and it doesn’t always agree with your ideas. After that, the instructor doesn’t just tell you the answer.”
This isn’t something from one student. I have seen and heard many students express this idea. I’ve talked about “telling students the answer” before, so let me focus on the “clear cut” part of science.
Nothing is Clear Cut
Despite what these students think, biology is not clear cut. It’s not always the case that “this” is the answer and “this other thing” is not. The real world isn’t like that. Besides, if knowledge really was about correct answers, why even go to class? Why not just look up the answers online? Surely, that would be easier. If learning was all about answers, I (the instructor) could just hand out answers or post them online. That would be much more efficient, right? Students could write these things down and memorize them for the test. Then again, why test on memorization when we have Google and Wikipedia?
Despite how it appears, biology is not “clear cut.” Biologists didn’t always know the structure of a cell or the process through which a plant grows, for example. The same is true for most other disciplines. Take a look at history classes. Do we really know what happened in the Battle of New Orleans? Sure, we know the date (probably) but there are many other things we can only speculate about.
Part of the problem lies in how teachers teach a class. We often present a case to students that makes it appear that the answers are clear cut when in fact they are not. It’s much easier to assess student understanding by asking about dates and places than it is to ask about things that aren’t so clear. Since it’s easier to assess these things, that’s what we usually do.
I hate to say that physics is different, but it’s kind of different. Even if you believe professors should focus only on the answers to questions and the answers should be clear cut, the process of reaching these answers is just complicated enough to make it difficult for the student to see it as such. So in the end, some students think there aren’t clear answers in physics. Oh sure, you could make a physics test that just asks about the values of the gravitational constant and the charge of an electron–that would be clear cut. But no one really does that (yes, I know there was that one person who did).
OK, so how do we fix this problem? How do I help these students understand that there is value in being confused? I think the only solution is to keep confusing students. Sorry students, there is no shortcut to real understanding.