How To Teach Big Ideas in Physics

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The Big Ideas in Physics and How to Teach Them provides all of the knowledge and skills you need to teach physics effectively at the secondary level. Each chapter provides the historical narrative behind a Big Idea, explaining its significance, the key figures behind it, and its place in scientific history.
‘The book is brilliant. I hope all physics teacher trainers and trainees, as well as established
teachers, use this critically important work to guide their teaching.’
John Sweller, Emeritus Professor at the School of Education,
The University of New South Wales, Australia
The Big Ideas in Physics and How to Teach Them provides all of the knowledge and skills
you need to teach physics effectively at secondary level. Each chapter provides the histori-
cal narrative behind a Big Idea, explaining its significance, the key figures behind it and its
place in scientific history. Accompanied by detailed, ready-to-use lesson plans and classroom
activities, the book expertly fuses the ‘what to teach’ and the ‘how to teach it’, creating an
invaluable resource which contains not only a thorough explanation of physics, but also the
applied pedagogy to ensure its effective translation to students in the classroom.
Including a wide range of teaching strategies, archetypal assessment questions and model
answers, the book tackles misconceptions and offers succinct and simple explanations of
complex topics. Each of the five big ideas in physics are covered in detail:
•• electricity
•• forces
•• energy
•• particles
•• the universe
Aimed at new and trainee physics teachers, particularly non-specialists, this book provides
the knowledge and skills you need to teach physics successfully at secondary level, and will
inject new life into your physics teaching.
Ben Rogers teaches physics and trains new teachers for Paradigm Trust. He is a former lec-
turer on the Physics Enhancement Course at the University of East London, UK.
Teaching Physics 11–18
Ben Rogers
4. First published 2018
by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN
and by Routledge
711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
© 2018 Ben Rogers
The right of Ben Rogers to be identified as author of this work has been
asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced
or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means,
now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording,
or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in
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or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and
explanation without intent to infringe.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Rogers, Ben (Physics writer), author.
Title: Big ideas in physics and how to teach them: teaching physics 11-18 /
Ben Rogers.
Description: Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2018.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017059174 (print) | LCCN 2018002921 (ebook) |
ISBN 9781315305431 (ebook) | ISBN 9781138235076 (hardback) |
ISBN 9781138235069 (pbk.)
Subjects: LCSH: Physics teachers—Training of. | Physics—Study and
teaching (Secondary) | Physics—Study and teaching—Activity programs.
Classification: LCC QC30 (ebook) | LCC QC30 .R635 2018 (print) |
DDC 530.071—dc23
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ISBN: 978-1-138-23507-6 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-1-138-23506-9 (pbk)
ISBN: 978-1-315-30543-1 (ebk)
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5. For Denise, Laura and Hannah
7. Preface x
Acknowledgements xi
 Introduction 1
Zero A big idea about learning 3
Working memory 3
Long-term memory 4
External environment 4
How can we use Cognitive Load Theory to accelerate learning? 5
Knowledge 10
Archetypal questions 10
Model-based problem solving 11
The privileged status of stories – Willingham 11
Misconceptions – When knowledge is wrong 11
Practical work in physics 13
Reducing Cognitive Load for practical work 13
Literacy – A different sort of physics problem 14
What are the Cognitive Loads associated with reading and
how can we reduce them? 14
What are the Cognitive Loads of writing and how can we
reduce them? 16
How to teach writing in physics 18
Conclusion 18
  1 Electricity 20
Introduction 20
A history of electricity 20
Electricity in the Classroom 36
Misconceptions 38
Archetypal questions 40
Models 40
Model based reasoning 41
8. viii­ Contents
Practical electricity 43
Example lesson plan 44
Conclusion 47
   2  Forces at a distance 49
Petrus Peregrinus, Crusader – 1269 50
William Gilbert of Colchester, Physician to Queen Elizabeth I – 1600 50
Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation – 1687 51
Faraday’s lines of force – 1852 53
Maxwell’s equations: The second great unification in physics – 1865 54
Einstein’s curved space – 1915 55
Fermi’s nuclear forces – 1933 55
Teaching forces at a distance 56
Archetypal questions 58
Using strategies from cognitive psychology in lessons 59
Using demonstrations and practical work for writing 61
Example lesson plan 63
Conclusion 67
  3 Energy 69
A short history of five energies 69
Kinetic energy and potential energy: Descartes and Leibniz – 1644
and 1676 70
Chemical energy and heat energy: James Joule – 1843 71
Nuclear energy: E = mc2 – 1905 72
Teaching energy 73
Types of energy – stores and pathways 73
Misconceptions 73
Archetypal questions 74
Using strategies from cognitive psychology in lessons 76
Reading and writing 76
Reducing Cognitive Load 77
Example lesson plan 77
Conclusion 85
  4 Particles 87
Introduction 87
A history of particles 87
But atoms are not real. Or are they? Einstein – 1904 89
Rays, beams and other phenomena – 1869 to 1899 91
Pieces of atoms – 1897 to 1899 92
Disproof of the pudding: Rutherford’s astonishing career – 1900
to 1921 93
Neutrons and war – 1932 to 1945 95
Teaching particles 96
9. Contents ix
Misconceptions 96
Archetypal questions 97
Useful strategies from cognitive psychology in lessons 99
Example lesson plan 101
Conclusion 105
Notes 105
  5 The universe 107
Introduction 107
The telescope – 1608 110
Teaching the universe 115
Misconceptions 115
Archetypal questions 117
Models 118
Practical astronomy 123
Example lesson plan 126
Conclusion 129
Bibliography 130
Index 133
10. This book is written for every new physics teacher, whether you are new to teaching or new
to teaching physics. Recruiting new physics teachers is difficult. In 2015/16 in England:
•• 29% of the 1,055 physics training places were unfilled.
•• 28% of physics lessons were taught by teachers without post A-level experience.
(DfE 2016)
The initial idea for the structure of this book came from a report published in 2010 by the
Association of Science Education (ASE): ‘The Principles and Big Ideas of Science Education’,
edited by Wynne Harlen. The report identified fourteen ‘Big Ideas’ of science education.
I have fewer big ideas for physics teachers. The ideas I have chosen are electricity, forces at
a distance, energy, particles and the universe. Each of these big ideas has its own stories and
its own pedagogy. This book has a chapter for each.
But the book starts with a different sort of big idea: a learning theory. I have used
John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory to explain why I have chosen specific activities
and approaches.
Whether you are an experienced teacher, teaching physics for the first time or new to the
profession, thank you. My aim is to help you enjoy teaching physics and to teach it well.
11. This book began as a physics knowledge enhancement course at Thetford Academy. I got to
work with enthusiastic, skilled teachers who were teaching physics but who weren’t experi-
enced physics teachers. I want to thank Adrian Ball for initiating the course and for encourag-
ing me to write the book, and all of the participants of the course for their encouragement
and feedback.
The narrative element of the book was developed from a discussion with Daisy
Christodoulou about the importance of narrative in learning. We wanted a text which told the
narratives of science, something like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything but
aligned with the curriculum. Half of this book is dedicated to those narratives.
I would like to thank Alan Weller of UEL for guiding me through the early stages of finding
a publisher and Bill Holledge of Paradigm Trust, Dr Jo Saxton of Turner Schools and Tony
Sherborne of the Centre for Science Education, Sheffield Hallam University for helping me
clear the first hurdles.
I am grateful for generous feedback on the first chapter from Professor Dylan Wiliam and
Professor John Sweller. The errors which remain are my own.
My thanks also to Dr Lucy Rogers, Richard Heald and Simon Laycock for their feedback on
the writing and their encouragement.
Finally, I owe so much in my life and career to Denise Dickinson, who has been by my side
since I first learnt to teach, guiding and encouraging me and along the way teaching me to
write a little better.
13. Know how to solve every problem that has been solved.
Richard Feynman
You are a new physics teacher – you have been asked to teach students how to be physicists.
This means teaching students how to become physics problem solvers.
A physicist is the sum of the problems she can solve. She knows the conservation of
energy when she can solve all of the problems associated with it. Knowing all the problems
lets you solve new ones:
the science student, confronted with a problem, seeks to see it as like one or more of the
exemplary problems he has encountered before.
(Kuhn 1977: 297)
In other words, to become a better problem solver, a novice physicist needs to be exposed
to as many archetypal questions as possible. More than that, she needs to be exposed to
archetypal questions in as many guises as possible, until she can see the underlying deep
structure of a question.
This is a book about solving physics problems. It is about the knowledge a learner needs to
become an expert. It is about the archetypal problems every physics student needs to learn.
It is about how to teach them as efficiently and effectively as possible.
In 1966 Richard Feynman gave an interview about teaching physics. He said that there is
usually a problem in physics lessons – the students do not know where they are. His solution:
“there always should be some kind of a map” (Feynman 2010: 16).
I have constructed this book around a map. I started by writing the stories around a time-
line for five big ideas of physics: electricity, forces at a distance, energy, particles and the
universe. Figure i.1 is a map I made of the big ideas of physics.
This book is about teaching these five big ideas. Each chapter starts with the story of the
big idea. Stories find a way of lodging in our brains. I use the stories as a base to build knowl-
edge onto. But before I start with the big ideas of physics, I need to explain about another big
idea in this book: a big idea about learning.
14. 2­ Introduction
1500 1600 1700 1800 1900 2000
Figure i.1 A series of timelines showing when key events in the history of physics took place
15. Zero A big idea about learning
This idea is Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), which has been slowly gaining recognition since
it was first developed by John Sweller in the 1980s. I have used the theory throughout this
book to recommend activities and strategies and to explain why they work. CLT is not a
theory-of-everything, but it helps explain how we learn to solve problems.
CLT emphasises two types of memory: working memory and long-term memory, how they
interact with each other and the external environment, as shown in Figure 0.1.
Working memory
¼ and many
The external environment Long-term memory
Figure 0.1 A model illustrating the external environment, working memory and long-term
Working memory
When we solve a problem, we store relevant, temporary information in our working memories.
It is our mental workbench. Typical information manipulated in our working memories includes:
16. 4­ A big idea about learning
•• data to solve the task;
•• information about the task;
•• relevant processes and strategies;
•• information about social interactions (I use group-learning a lot in my classes).
The first important thing for teachers to know is that working memory is easily overloaded
when dealing with novel information. Keeping track of three ideas is usually too much. If you
are asking students to carry out a novel task, collaborating with new people using knowledge
they haven’t memorised, and hope that they will be able to reflect on their learning at the
same time, you may be out of working memory and out of luck.
The second thing to know is that solving a problem at the limit of her ability does not allow
a student to reflect on the process - a vital part of learning. So, even if the learner gets the
problem right, you may have wasted learning time.
Long-term memory
The reason that some of us are better at solving problems than others is mainly due to
long-term memory. If you have two capable students solving a problem, the one with the
most relevant knowledge in her long-term memory is more likely to be successful. Relevant
knowledge includes:
•• subject knowledge – facts and the relationships between facts.
•• learning knowledge – how to access the knowledge we need to solve a problem.
•• general knowledge – the information we assume others know. This is important for effec-
tive communication, especially when examples or questions are set within a context; for
example, an examiner, textbook writer or teacher may assume the student knows about
Africa, audio cassettes, the Tudors or snow.
•• social knowledge – understanding the relationships, roles, rules and expectations of
those around us. Social knowledge is key to solving problems in the real world.
We store our long-term memories as schemata – networks of knowledge organised in mean-
ingful ways. To become better problem solvers, students need richer schemata with more
knowledge, connected more meaningfully. For example, a student with a well-developed
schema about pressure will know the effects of pressure on: living things; elephant feet,
high-heeled shoes, snow-shoes and drawing pins; submarines and high-altitude balloons; the
bends; early vacuum pumps and the Magdeburg hemispheres; the gas laws (Boyle’s, Gay-
Lussac’s and Charles’) and their history; Boltzmann and the kinetic theory of gases; Brownian
motion; and a bunch of equations involving pressure.
External environment
Our working memories can only take in a small amount of information from the external
environment at one time, which then rapidly fades. This is important for teachers because we
influence our students’ external environment: the whiteboard, a demonstration, a worksheet,
17. A big idea about learning 5
the classroom display, the seating plan. The aim is to focus attention on relevant information
and reduce distractions.
Learners also influence their external environments. When a task gets tricky and working
memory gets strained, effective learners use their external environment to reduce the load
on their working memories. That’s why we count on fingers, do calculations on the backs of
envelopes and work with others (making use of their working memories too). Every photo of a
physicist shows a blackboard full of indecipherable, chalky marks – the classic useful external
environment. Marking-up texts and diagrams, making notes, answering questions neatly and
working effectively with peers are important strategies for learning.
How can we use Cognitive Load Theory to accelerate learning?
The first lesson from CLT is that students who know more, who have better developed sche-
mata, are better at solving problems. If your primary goal as a physics teacher is to teach
your students to be better problems solvers, your primary strategy has to be teaching your
students more knowledge.
The second lesson is that reducing Cognitive Load makes learning more effective. When
you reduce the Cognitive Load, learners solve problems more effectively and learn more.
Reducing Cognitive Load means stripping out all of the extraneous, confusing detail and dis-
tractions from the task – especially for novices. Decide what you want your students to learn
from a task and simplify everything else.
When students learn, they are developing schemata – the knowledge and organisation of
knowledge in long-term memory. Our main job as teachers is to boost students’ schemata.
This means thinking hard about what we want our students to be able to recall instantly and
with little effort – in other words: knowledge.
Sweller’s research since the 1980s has shown that decreasing Cognitive Load increases
learning. Researchers have found many effective strategies for reducing Cognitive Load to
improve learning. I have described four strategies below: worked examples, completion prob-
lems, the goal-free strategy and reducing the split-attention effect.
Worked examples and completion problems
The problem with problem solving is that you need to be pretty knowledgeable before you
become good at it. We tend to teach new information and then immediately put it into a prob-
lem. This doesn’t help most learners.
CLT researchers have shown that an effective way to teach problem solving is by using
worked examples. When a teacher models how to solve a problem, she is giving the guid-
ance that novice physicists need. It is a way in: she makes the hidden process of solving the
problem visible.
18. 6­ A big idea about learning
A worked example
A ball bearing falls through oil. The arrows in Figure 0.2 represent the forces acting on the ball.
Explain, in terms of forces, why the ball reaches a terminal velocity.
Figure 0.2 The forces on a sphere in a tube of viscous liquid
Model answer
Imagine you are standing at the board – ideally the question is projected adjacent to where
you are explaining and making notes for the class:
1 The weight of the ball is independent of the ball’s velocity – it doesn’t change.
2 The drag on the ball increases as the ball accelerates (the drag more than doubles every
time the velocity doubles).
3 The ball stops accelerating when the drag matches the weight – it has reached termi-
nal velocity.
Try this several times with different contexts: a mouse falling down a well, a teacher jumping
from a balloon, a small meteorite falling from space. Same concept, different context.
But then what? The jump from seeing someone do it to being able to do it yourself is still
big and working memory is quickly overloaded.
One method is to give learners partially completed problems – this method is called prob-
lem completion. You reduce the cognitive load, allowing the learner to focus her working
memory on fewer aspects of the problem.
19. A big idea about learning 7
Completion problems
Going straight from worked example to whole questions is very challenging for most learn-
ers. Completion problems are half-completed answers which focus the learner’s attention
on one element of solving the problem. The example below focuses a learner’s attention on
putting the correct values into an equation.
A 5kg ball rolls down a slope which is 2m higher at the top than at the bottom. How much
more energy is in the ball’s gravitational store at the top of the slope than at the bottom?
m =
h =
g = 10m/s2
Eg = mgh
= J
As a student masters each element of the problem, the support should be reduced.
For written answers, sentence starters reduce the cognitive load:
On 14 October 2012, Felix Baumgartner created a new world record when he jumped from
a stationary balloon at a height of 39km above the Earth’s surface. 42s after jumping, he
reached a terminal velocity of 373m/s. Explain in terms of weight and drag how terminal
velocity is reached.
1 The weight  .
2 The drag  .
3 When the drag has increased  .
One completion problem will not be enough. You will need lots. There are plenty of full ques-
tions available in past exam papers or you can make up your own. Your job is to take a full
question and partially model the answer, leaving only the stages you want your students to
practice. For example:
When his balloon experiment began to go wrong, Mr Rogers knew he had to jump. He was
5km high. Explain in terms of weight and drag why he reached terminal velocity as he fell.
I have written sentence starters so that the learner does not have to sequence the answer for
herself. Her task is to practice the individual stages of the answer.
1 His weight  .
2 The drag  .
3 When the drag has increased  .
Completion problems are an effective method for focusing attention on specific elements of
a problem. They reduce Cognitive Load by zooming in.
20. 8­ A big idea about learning
Another method of reducing Cognitive Load is to remove the question all together. This
method is known as goal-free.
Reducing Cognitive Load by going goal-free
This strategy appears counter-intuitive, until you think about what you really want your stu-
dents to learn. Figure 0.3 is a good example.
Figure 0.3 A typical moments question
When you use this question in class, which of the following learning goals is most important
to you:
A: learning how to solve this type of problem
B: finding out how much vertical force the support really supplies.
I’m assuming you chose A (like so many of the questions we set in physics classes, we don’t
really care about the answer to the question). Reducing the Cognitive Load allows the learner
to learn. In the question above, simply cut out the text. You then have a situation to explore
with your students – the plank on the support, as shown in Figure 0.4.
Figure 0.4 A typical moments question with the question text removed
21. A big idea about learning 9
I use a cooperative strategy at this stage, asking students to discuss the situation in pairs.
This strategy is called think-pair-share. Each student has a copy of the diagram and makes
as many annotations as they can in one minute. Then, for one minute they compare their
annotations with a partner. While they are doing this, I walk around the class and choose two
or three students to contribute particularly useful ideas to the whole class.
A considerable amount of learning has happened by this stage. They have practised
retrieval, reinforcing their existing knowledge, and added to their weights-on-beams schema.
Your students may now be ready to tackle the problem. You may wish to demonstrate the
worked example yourself or set a partially completed problem.
Going goal-free might sound directionless, but it is a powerful strategy for learning what can
and cannot be done when faced with these given variables, leading to better problem solving.
Reducing the split-attention effect to reduce Cognitive Load
This strategy is about text and diagrams. When we have to split our attention between visuals
and text, the Cognitive Load increases. How can you integrate the text into the question to
reduce Cognitive Load?
Because the text is separate from the diagram, and quite wordy, the learner’s attention is
split, adding to the Cognitive Load for Figure 0.5. This reduces the students’ ability to learn
from the experience.
Figure 0.5 A typical moments question demonstrating the split attention effect
In Figure 0.6, I have adapted the question to minimise the split-attention effect. This
leaves more working memory available for processing. Embedding the text in the image does
more than reduce Cognitive Load; it uses a strategy with shown learning benefits called dual-
coding (see Sumeracki and Weinstein (n.d.) (
22. 10­ A big idea about learning
Figure 0.6 A typical moments question adapted to reduce the split attention effect
In all of these strategies, the aim is to reduce this support until your students can solve
the problems on their own. In fact, when you continue to support for too long, Cognitive
Load begins to increase again as the learner works around the support – this is called the
expertise-reversal effect.
When Twitter arguments erupt over knowledge-based curricula in history or the canon in
English literature, physicists scratch their heads. There is very little disagreement over what
knowledge is important in the physics curriculum. There may be a disagreement over when
to teach certain topics or which types of renewable energy to include, but the key ideas are
well established. Textbooks from the 17th century are recognisable today (and, more impor-
tantly, so are the problems solved).
To identify the knowledge, use the course syllabus, textbooks and other trusted sources
such as the Institute of Physics’ TalkPhysics (2016) and Supporting Physics Teaching (talk- and We can call this core knowledge.
But, there is other knowledge that is often missed:
•• What are the archetypal questions for this topic and how do I solve them?
•• What are the relevant models and how do I know when to use them?
•• What are the stories behind these ideas?
•• What are the common misconceptions for this topic and how can I avoid them?
In the following sections I have written about these additional types of knowledge.
Archetypal questions
Every topic in physics has its archetypal questions – the problems that are asked, in one form
or another, in every physics exam. These problems are a common language for physicists –
they are in every physics textbook around the world. They may be disguised using different
contexts, but the deep structure and the method of solving it are the same.
The key to mastering each problem is to do it so many times in different guises that the
learner can spot it without thinking about it. Recognising the archetype becomes intuitive.
23. A big idea about learning 11
Model-based problem solving
Physicists not only have heads full of problems and their solutions, they also have heads full
of models and how to apply each one. For example, a physicist has several electricity models,
each with different uses and limitations. She will use a simple current model for series and
parallel problems, a model involving a beam of electrons for cathode ray tubes and a model
of ions in a solution for electrolysis. Some of her models will be purely mathematical while
others will be largely concrete. The physicist needs to know each model and the problems
they can help solve.
Each of the big ideas in this book have their own models. I have described relevant ones in
each chapter and shown problems they can solve.
The privileged status of stories – Willingham
Back in 2004, Daniel T Willingham wrote an article about the power of stories in our brains.
(see Willingham (2004) (
ask-cognitive-scientist)) He said stories are somehow easier to understand and easier to
remember and are therefore “psychologically privileged” (Willingham 2004).
Willingham identifies four Cs to help think about effective use of stories: causality, con-
flict, complications and character. Physics stories are full of causality, and sometimes char-
acter, but we often fail to emphasise the conflict and complications, possibly because they
might distract. I try to put as much conflict and complication in as I can because that’s
what makes the story memorable. The history of physics is full of relevant conflict (for
example, Galvani and Volta or Benjamin Franklin and the Abbé Nollet disagreeing about
the nature of electricity). And there is conflict that is purely about spite (for example, Isaac
Newton and Stephen Grey). If conflict is memorable (and we are in the business of develop-
ing memories), we should emphasise conflict wherever we can. And the history of physics
is full of it.
Just telling the story is powerful, but it is more powerful (and accountable) to have the
students write sentences about the story during or after telling it. For example:
•• In this story,     causes .
•• The conflict in this story is .
•• The main complication in this story is .
•• The main character is    , who .
In each of the physics chapters in this book, I have written key stories in the development of
the idea. I have chosen each story with the four Cs in mind. My aim is to use the privileged
power of stories to rapidly build and develop schemata.
Misconceptions – When knowledge is wrong
Babies are born knowing physics. They express surprise when objects appear to be sus-
pended in mid-air or pass through walls. These are the primitive physics schemata we are all
born with. Onto these we add experiences from our lives: metals are cold, batteries run out
24. 12­ A big idea about learning
of charge, the sun moves. Then in physics lessons we try to supplant this knowledge with a
more formalised knowledge, often with mixed results.
All of our children come to class with heads full of unhelpful knowledge – misconceptions.
These were a huge area of PhD research in the 1980s and 1990s, and as such we know a lot
about them.
With the current emphasis on knowledge, the research into misconceptions becomes very
relevant. One of my favourite books is Children’s Ideas in Science, edited by Driver, Guesne
and Tiberghien (you may be able to get a copy second hand). It explores the world of novice
scientists’ minds, rich with rational, plausible but incorrect knowledge.
More recently, Harvard’s (2011) MOSART project has provided resources for teachers to
identify misconceptions (it is useful for teachers to try too). You have to go through a short
training process before being allowed access to the assessments. The questions are multiple
choice – not for summative assessment, but to help teachers identify which of your students
hold common misconceptions. Below is an example:
Scientists say a metal doorknob indoors often feels cold to you because:
1 Cold from the doorknob goes into your hand
2 Heat from your hand goes into the doorknob
3 Cold moves from the doorknob to your hand
4 Heat is pulled from the doorknob by your hand
5 Metals are always colder than air.
(MOSART 2011 test question)
The marking scheme tells you the percentage of students who chose the incorrect answer (A)
and what the misconception is.
Recent evidence shows that our misconceptions never go away, but that we learn to select
the relevant, acceptable knowledge for the situation. In other words, we all really believe that
the Earth is flat and that Australia is impossible, but choose a different model in most situa-
tions. An incorrect answer may not mean the student doesn’t have the knowledge – she may
simply not realise she’s supposed to use it for this question.
Physicists often cannot tell you how they identify the appropriate knowledge, model or
technique to solve a problem. It is intuition. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon wrote about intui-
tion: “The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to informa-
tion stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more
and nothing less than recognition” (Simon 1992). Intuition is recognition, and recognition
is memory.
This is why you need to practice as many questions as possible.
Refutation texts
Misconceptions are tenacious and resilient. When you think you’ve got rid of one, it reap-
pears. Long-term memories are for life. Instead of trying to remove the misconception, the
25. A big idea about learning 13
solution is to recognise the misconception and build the acceptable understanding onto it.
A strategy called refutation texts has been shown to work for this.
A refutation text is a short paragraph, written by the learner, which does three things:
1 States the misconception;
2 Explicitly says that this is not correct;
3 States the accepted scientific viewpoint.
I use sentence starters to reduce Cognitive Load, for example:
Many people believe  .
However,  .
Most scientists state that  .
Using the MOSART example test question, an example refutation text is:
Many people believe that when you touch a metal doorknob, coldness moves from the
metal into your hand. However, cold does not move. Scientists say that it is heat moving
from your hand into the metal that makes it feel cold.
You will likely need to do this several times for each misconception using slightly different
examples. It is worth spending time addressing misconceptions, because they will always
come back, especially under stressful circumstances.
Practical work in physics
Science without practical is like swimming without water.
(SCORE 2008: 10)
Do you agree with this statement? Do your colleagues? Do your students? There is evidence
that practical work is not an effective way of teaching content (see the Further Reading sec-
tion at the end of this chapter), but it is given a high status in UK classrooms.
Using practical work is a choice – there are usually other ways of teaching whatever you
are planning to teach, techniques that take less time and use fewer resources. If you can
teach more efficiently using a more direct model of teaching, perhaps you should.
But if you decide to use practical activities in your lessons, you need to make it count.
Reducing Cognitive Load for practical work
Cognitive Load Theory explains why students don’t learn well from practical lessons: there
is too much happening at once. Learners have to: collect and assemble apparatus, follow
instructions from memory or from verbal or written instructions, work collaboratively, make
and record careful observations and then pack everything away. And that list does not include
thinking about the science.
26. 14­ A big idea about learning
So how can you reduce the Cognitive Load? The simplest way to reduce Cognitive Load is
for you to do the practical as a demonstration. While you are modelling the experiment, you
can direct their attention to relevant details.
If you want them to do the practical work themselves, remove as much Cognitive
Load as possible. What is it exactly that you want them to learn or practise? Do they
need to assemble the practical themselves? Do they need to draw the results table or
graph axes? Is it worth training them to get the equipment out and put it away so that it
becomes automatic?
Literacy – A different sort of physics problem
What are the Cognitive Loads associated with
reading and how can we reduce them?
Reading is a physics problem that doesn’t receive much attention in class. I think it should.
Science professionals read a lot (see Figure 0.7).
Time that science and engineering professionals
spend reading per week
13.27% 15.3% 20+ hours
6.12% 15−19 hours
10−14 hours
5−9 hours
0−4 hours
Figure 0.7 Reading lessons for scientists, from Ben Rogers September 2015.
And they read to learn (see Figure 0.8).
Why do scientists and engineers read?
for for to keep for
information understanding up-to-date interest
Figure 0.8 R
 eading lessons for scientists, from Ben Rogers September 2015.
27. A big idea about learning 15
The problem is, most science, technology, engineering and maths professionals taught
themselves (see Figure 0.9).
Who teaches scientists and engineers how to
read professional texts?
Taught myself Taught at Taught at school
Figure 0.9 Reading lessons for scientists, from Ben Rogers September 2015.
Teaching yourself is fine, as long as there is support there when you need it. In my expe-
rience, there is little support and many fall through the net, dropping physics at GCSE or
A-level because they can’t access the texts. They misread exam questions, they find text-
books inaccessible and scientific papers opaque.
CLT explains why reading is difficult and suggests how to make it easier. It is difficult
because all three memories are in use: long-term, working memory and external memory
(the text and any scribbles added to it).
The two most important things to improve reading are in your long-term memory – or they
need to be. They are vocabulary and knowledge.
Vocabulary for reading
Science teachers are excellent at teaching science vocabulary. We explain clearly, we use
example sentences, we revisit, we match words to diagrams. We use every trick we know.
But we ignore key non-specialist vocabulary. Words like: determine, suggest, establish and
system (I took these from a couple of recent GCSE papers). These words should be taken as
seriously by science teachers as technical vocabulary.
Knowledge for reading
Along with vocabulary, the most important part of understanding is the stuff you already
know: your schemata. As we read, the information in the text is held in your working memory
to be presented to knowledge from your long-term memory, like a debutante or a novice
28. 16­ A big idea about learning
speed-dater. If sense can be made, fine, but learning takes place when the long-term memory
is modified, added to or contradicted.
Skills for reading comprehension
It isn’t worth spending too long on generic comprehension skills. Research evidence shows
that there are a few simple strategies which help, but these can be taught quickly and effec-
tively over a few weeks. After that, you will see little improvement (see Daniel T. WiIlingham’s
(2006) article ‘The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies’
In class, I focus on the following skills – or habits – that expert science readers (people like
us) use most often.
To do this, I usually put students into groups of four and give them a reading card each.
The student with card one reads a paragraph and then each student takes turns to finish the
sentence starter on their card. Sentence starters can include:
1 I Wonder… Expert readers ask questions of the text. Often these questions are related
to meaning, but they can be “I wonder what that word means?” or “I wonder why the
writer said that”.
2 In other words… Paraphrasing (rewording, often making clearer) is a powerful compre-
hension checking skill/habit.
3 I predict… Asking readers to predict what comes next in a text is a useful way of drawing
attention to the structure and conventions of scientific texts. It is extremely useful when
scanning a text for the information you want to be able to predict whether the informa-
tion might be in a nearby section.
4 So far… Summarising is a habit which encourages prioritisation of information.
When the fourth student has finished, they each pass their card to the team member on their
left and repeat the process.
If these activities can be practised enough (several times over a few weeks, with occa-
sional top-ups) they quickly become part of a learner’s reading schema – a low effort strategy
to use when reading.
What are the Cognitive Loads of writing
and how can we reduce them?
We can only think about two or three novel items at one time, so writing is hard. There is a lot
to think about. Table 0.1 shows two things:
1 Why writing is a high-load activity.
2 How to reduce load for novice writers.
29. A big idea about learning 17
Table 0.1 Strategies for reducing Cognitive Load associated with writing
Cognitive Load Reduce the load for novices by using…
1 Choosing the relevant knowledge Mind map/notes.
and vocabulary.
2 Planning the overall structure of the Outline plans/sequencing activities (e.g. print out the
text – the argument. individual ideas for students to sequence).
3 Planning short sequences – a couple Bullet points/sentence sequencing activities.
of sentences to make a point.
4 Structuring individual sentences. Sentence starters/write–rewrite activities.
5 Spelling, punctuation and grammar. Teach model sentences/remind students how to punctuate /
practise punctuating sentences correctly.
All of the Cognitive Load activities are important; practice them one at a time. Decide which
part of writing you want your students to develop and reduce the Cognitive Load from the
other elements.
The following writing task is an analysis of the Cognitive Load imposed by a typical physics
writing task.
Writing task: Explain why a skydiver reaches terminal velocity.
What is the knowledge required by this question?
1 Key knowledge:
a Gravity
b Air resistance
c Velocity increases
d Resultant force decreases
e Balanced forces
f Terminal velocity.
2 Outline:
a At first – no motion
b Speed increases
c Until terminal velocity.
3 Sequence of sentences:
a v = 0, acceleration due to gravity. No air resistance.
b v increases → air resistance increases → resultant force decreases → accelera-
tion decreases.
c v = forces balance → acceleration = 0 → terminal velocity.
30. 18­ A big idea about learning
4 Key sentences:
a Initially, the velocity is zero, so the air resistance is zero and the skydiver accelerates.
b As the velocity increases so does the air resistance, resulting in a decreased
c When the air resistance balances the force due to gravity, the acceleration reaches
zero – this is the skydiver’s terminal velocity.
5 Spelling and grammar (SpaG) check.
6 Proofread and edit.
How to teach writing in physics
Writing is one of the best ways to ensure your students are thinking, and to get an insight
into their thoughts. But because writing has a very high Cognitive Load, it is worth separating
each element of writing out: work on one element at a time and assess one element at a time.
These elements include: identifying relevant concepts, arranging these concepts in a logical
sequence, constructing well-formed sentences and structuring the writing. CLT has revealed
several useful techniques to make learning through writing more effective:
1 Start with model answers. Greg Ashman (2017) recommends modelling followed by near
identical problems for students to complete (
2 Use completion problems. Choose which type of Cognitive Load in Table 0.1 (see page 17)
you want your students to focus on and reduce the rest.
3 Use gap fills, sentence starters and mind maps as effective techniques to reduce
Cognitive Load. Later you will want to demonstrate combining the different elements
into a coherent piece of writing.
4 Write–rewrite. This Reading Reconsidered technique (Lemov et. al. 2016) is especially
effective in reducing Cognitive Load when writing complex scientific sentences. Students
write their sentence once, share effective answers and then rewrite. Your students are
effectively unloading Cognitive Load as the first draft, allowing greater intellectual
resources to be applied to the second draft.
5 Reduce support. As the student develops expertise, these strategies eventually increase
Cognitive Load as they get in the way.
Learning physics means learning to solve the problems of physics. Cognitive Load Theory
provides a model and strategies to make learning to solve the problems of physics more
The five remaining chapters apply Cognitive Load Theory to five big ideas of physics:
electricity, forces at a distance, energy, particles and the universe, always starting with
the stories.
31. A big idea about learning 19
Further reading – A big idea about learning
•• Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown and Kukan, The Guilford Press. 2002
•• Children’s Ideas in Science, Driver, Guesne and Tiberghien, Open University
Press, 1985.
•• Cognitive Load Theory: Research that Teachers Really Need to Understand, Centre
for Education Statistics and Evaluation,
•• Feynman’s Tips on Physics, Basic Books, 2013.
•• MOSART (Misconceptions-Oriented Standards-Based Assessment Resources for
•• Practical Work for Learning, The Nuffield Foundation, www.nuffieldfoundation.
•• Practical Work in Science: Misunderstood and Badly Used? Jonathan Osborne,
SSR, September 2015.
•• Practical Work: Making It More Effective, Robin Millar and Ian Abrahams, SSR,
September 2009,
•• Reading Lessons for Scientists, Ben Rogers, September 2015,
•• Reading Reconsidered, Lemov, Driggs and Woolway, Jossey-Bass, 2016.
•• The Association for Science Education (ASE) published two editions of their jour-
nal School Science Review (SSR) on practical work in June and September 2015.
ASE members can download the papers from the website at
•• The Learning Scientists, Six Strategies for Effective Learning: Materials for Teach­
ers and Students,
•• The Reading Mind, Willingham, Jossey-Bass, 2017.
•• The Writing Revolution, Hochman and Wexler, Jossey-Bass, 2017.
•• Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman, Penguin, 2011.
•• Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure
of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teach­
ing.’ Kirschner, Sweller and Clark.