Online notes

Why do students who take courses with me (but colleagues tell me of similar experiences) routinely insist that I scan and post online my very own notes, the hard-to-read, disorganized and sketchy gibberish that I use for lecturing, whereas if I post a neatly put together summary of the basic concepts and formulae — typically after painstakingly making slides, drawings and animations — I am invariably told that “that stuff is useless” ?

The notes of a physics instructor cannot say anything fundamentally different from what students can find on their textbook — or any other legitimate physics book. There is no getting around this simple observation: physics is a subject which does not really leave much room for different “interpretations”. How the physical world works — not my opinion of that — at least to the best of current human knowledge, is what I try to illustrate to students. The laws of physics are what they are. Everything I describe can be (and has been repeatedly) independently subjected to the rigorous test of experimental reproducibility.
That is not to say that my job consists of rehashing the textbook [0], but ultimately I say the same things that the textbook says. So, what is the point of coming to class, one may ask.
My lecture, just like anyone else’s, consists a summary of my own way of thinking of a particular subject — one that I have developed in time, that I find intuitive, clear, and that I think should enable students to read the textbook on their own, comprehending concepts more easily and quickly than if they had to read it without any prior information.
Is this not the main goal of any lecture (irrespective of whether it is held in a classroom or in any other more technologically advanced format) ? I assume that we still agree that students should be active learners, i.e., do a fair amount of reading and thinking about the subject matter on their own

Because the laws of physics are conveniently expressed in the precise language of mathematics, I am also charged with introducing students to the mathematical character of the discipline. This includes showing how to set up a proper formalism to help one formulate meaningful questions, define cogent physical quantities, carry out calculations, as well as how some important results can be derived, using simple algebra, from basic experimental starting points. Consequently, each one of my lectures involve a fair amount of algebra.
In my mind, a student would come to class, try to listen as concepts are presented, follow the derivations, including the more algebraic aspects, and then on her own, or in a small group of students, go through the material on the textbook, trying to reproduce all the math that is not worked out in detail, possibly using her own class notes as a guide.

Is the above exercise, namely going through the algebra and derivations, necessary ? I suppose that that is debatable, even though when I was a student, both in Italy and in the United States (and we are talking a little over 20 years ago, not back in the Stone Age), it was not regarded as such. We simply had to. I believe, based on my own experience as a student as and as a teacher, that going through derivations step by step, trying to work out all the algebra down to the last details, is exceedingly important.
I am not aware of any scholarly research on this subject. Surely much more authoritative sources have made this point in the past, for example Freeman Dyson in Disturbing the Universe [1], or Richard Feynman in Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman !.
I am personally convinced that there is value to that practice, that the level of understanding that one will achieve of a subject is very different, much more in-depth if the time is taken and the effort made of going through pages of algebra, than if one just skips to the end and memorize the formulae. Perhaps doing the math develops an appreciation for orders of magnitudes, reinforces one’s comprehension of how a given physical effect unfolds from fundamental laws and mechanisms — I cannot claim to understand how it works, really.
Of course, sometimes one gets stuck, not being able to figure out how to go from one line of algebra to the next. I remember as a student spending entire afternoons trying to see how a particularly important result would be obtained, as I could not work the calculations out by myself. Sometimes I would have to ask fellow students, and if they could not explain that to me convincingly, I would go and see the instructor — very much the same as many students do these days, still.

There is also little doubt in my mind, however, that these days a substantial fraction of then students I teach, I may even venture to say the majority, have very little patience for that kind of practice. Whether it is because they regard it as unnecessary, time consuming, or whether maybe they lack the interest for the subject matter, I have become convinced that that is really why they want me to post notes, and act annoyed when I tell them that they can go through the textbook: they do not want to bother with the algebra. The textbook, or the kind of material that I have posted online so far, do not have the algebra spelled out — that’s why they are “useless”.
Now, my dilemma is: so far I have been pretty hard-nosed about it, not posted my own notes online, insisted that students do what was expected of me two decades ago, and “sweat it out”; should I instead give in to their requests (strongly supported by university administrations, for reasons that are unclear but that are unlikely to have anything to do with education), and post my notes online with all the algebra worked out, step by step ?


[0] Although there are times when I happen to think that the way in which the textbook expounds a particular idea is effective, and I happily adopt it, obviously rephrasing it in my own words.

[1] The book is not exclusively about the subject of this post. I doubt if that would warrant such a title, even though there are surely strong opinions out there.

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13 Responses to “Online notes”

  1. no one Says:

    I’d wager most of the kids you speak of don’t even know algebra well enough. This is one reason why they need to see it all drawn out for them. I am not much older than these students of yours, but I’ll just go ahead and say it. The majority of them were bred and trained to be intellectually lazy (if not physically lazy as well) by selfish parents too lazy to properly parent (i.e., be their kid’s best friend and not lay down the law). Hard Work and her sister, Failure, have been removed from their paths whenever possible. Without either, no one properly learns anything.

    • Massimo Says:

      That is the one thing that worries me about putting too much stuff online, I am afraid that it ends up promoting a very passive approach to learning among the students. It seems to me that an important part of the process consists of rehashing concepts in one’s mind independently.

  2. Grad Student Says:

    This is quite funny. Before I got to university, I was taught how to teach and understand student’s situation and am amazed at how poorly prof’s do with all their experience.

    Now onto some ramblings of my experiences as a physics student.

    There was a time that if I was provided with the prof’s notes I would still only use the textbook. I was burned a few times by mastering an excessively clever bit of course material, but some more mundane materials were tested. I eventually learned that I would get higher grades if I used their notes. For any particular course a textbook contains a lot of chaff, whereas the prof’s notes contain all the wheat: the material that the prof believes to be important, the material they use to make the exams.

    Some instructor’s also don’t know how to illustrate the importance of some concepts. Thus student’s are forced to put the same weight on all material because every word that falls out of the prof’s mouth is gold. In my first year, I knew that I needed to learn and understand all about gravity, Coulmb interaction, and special relativity. When he taught about the simple harmonic oscillator, I was bored because I couldn’t see its utility beyond simple mechanics. When it came up in second year I recalled being introduced it the previous year. It wasn’t until third year that I thought there might be something to this “simple harmonic oscillator” thing. Many lecturers really don’t understand that they can say: “this is important”, “you will see this hundreds of times again in physics, so please understand it”, “many concepts in physics are explained with deviations upon this concept”, “this will be important in engineering, astrophysics, condensed matter physics,etc.”

    You could even try on your first day or in the course outline:”To get an A in this class I expect (A) a visceral understanding of the concepts in this class, (B)… To accomplish this you should do the following x activities (1) be able to work out the derivations on your own, (2)…”

    If you think that derivations are the best way to understand physics then derivations should be part of the assesement. I have had a handful of professors assign a derivation, as part of a problem set, that was given in a textbook or class. They wanted all the algebra not given in the textbook and additional physical insight (or more commonly rewording the explanation) proving we understood the concepts. Alternatively, on exams you could ask for the outline of derivations.

    If you heed the advise in the previous three paragraphs, I *guarantee* you will get much closer to the student behaviour you are looking for.

    • Sophia Says:

      See point 3 here:

      • grad student Says:

        Yeah. I caught myself doing that a few times. Apparently, I missed some. I think it happens when I type fast. I find that for some reason I also try to spell things phonetically.

    • asdf Says:

      If in doubt, assume that everything in physics lecture will be important, unless stated otherwise.

      Why would they lecture it if they would not want you to learn it?

      • Massimo Says:

        “Is this going to be on the final ?”…. does that drive you crazy too ?

      • grad student Says:

        I have seen people lecture just so that we have “since it once”, but they “don’t expect you to know this for the exam”. I have also had a good professor do “starred” material. He would put up a giant star on the board and go over material that was interesting but not testable. The star would get erased when his tangent was finished.

    • Massimo Says:

      If you heed the advise in the previous three paragraphs, I *guarantee* you will get much closer to the student behaviour you are looking for

      You sound just like me before I started teaching.
      It was a humbling experience the first time I actually found myself in charge of an actual course, and realized that there is quite a bit more than “few little things here and there”.
      I remember thinking “gee, I thought I had it all figured out, and look how much more complicated it is than I thought… and how little I really understood about it … and I even had the nerve to lecture about it people who had done it for twenty years …”

      • Grad Student Says:

        Maybe the difference was that my students would do push-ups if they didn’t finish their (caught myself “there”!) homework. (Actually, we weren’t allowed to do that, they got written warnings.)

  3. Camilla Says:

    I see the point you’re tying to make is that there’s no short cut to learning, and posting detailed notes online will only encourage passive and sloppy understanding of the subject matter.

    Although I agree with you that a good grasp of the subject matter must come with practice and independent reflection, I don’t believe posting detailed notes online will discourage students from these activites.

    Your entire argument is based on the presupposition that students are lazy and apathetic, and if detailed solutions are available to them, all they’re going to do is simply read the answers and memorize the steps.

    The point I’d like to make is that there’s no remedy for laziness and apathy, whether it’s for learning, voting, or something else. However, having detailed notes online provides many benefits for students than simply offer itself as the easy way to learn. Detailed notes are like the solution manual to a set of problems. They may offer students with a method to a problem that they either haven’t thought of or simply forgotten. Of course, to use these notes most effectively, students should first try to derive them on their own. Like having an alternative interpretation, worked out solutions are like an alternative method. This is why you post detailed,worked out answers for home work problems. So why not online notes?

    In addition, having notes online will make studying more efficient for the student. It takes longer to go to your office than checking online notes. Often times, when the student gets stuck all they need is a pointer from the notes. As a result, they’ll only go to your office if they have more serious questions.

    Lastly, the techniques are most useful and are tested on the exams will often come from the notes than from the text book. In fact, text books don’t intend to teach techniques and methods to solve a problem. Instead, they rephrase the fundamental concepts I hear from you in the lectures. ( I guess this point can be argued depending on the textbook used, but many advanced text books don’t bother with the details of algebra).

    So where can students learn the algebraic methods and techniques to solve a physics problem? You’d say, well it must come from practicing “on their own”. However, is it reasonable to expect students to come up with everything on their own? Wouldn’t it be beneficial for the student to see the problem work out differently by someone else, i.e., you?

    • Massimo Says:

      Your entire argument is based on the presupposition that students are lazy and apathetic

      Actually no, I have not passed that kind of judgment. My argument is based on the observation that students more and more expect to have access to things which until ten years ago (yes, I was teaching already back then, and internet existed 😉 ) they did not seem to need. I do not claim to understand their motivations.

      It is also based on the observation that in the course of a single term exceedingly few students come to my office in the first place, and when they do they never ask how a particular formula was derived, or to rehash a specific concept or even show how the algebra was worked out. The just want to know how to solve what the answer is to a certain problem.

      Detailed notes are like the solution manual to a set of problems.

      … which is usually not handed out to students, the premise being that they really should try and work them out by themselves. Sure, it would be easier, faster and more efficient if you could just look up the solution, instead of “wasting” afternoons trying to obtain it on your own, but most of us think that that would defeat the purpose of assigning homework in the first place. Same goes for online notes.

      Wouldn’t it be beneficial for the student to see the problem work out differently by someone else, i.e., you?

      Sure, and that is what lectures and office hours are for.
      The time “wasted” in trying to figure out how to go from that starting point to that final formula is regarded by many of us as an essential part of learning.
      If we accept that premise, debatable as it might be, then there is no escaping the fact that there exists a line beyond which one is spoon feeding students, taking away any kind of intellectual challenge and rendering course work an altogether less fruitful experience.

  4. ipekinghaschoome1973 Says:

    Reblogged this on Bryan Watkins Journal.

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