Some years ago, I designed a Physics Department course called “Theory of Sound with Applications to Speech and Hearing Science” intended for majors in the Communication Disorders Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. These students hope to become audiologists or speech and language pathologists. The CommDis Department made my course required for their majors, as a prerequisite to their Language Science courses, and it has been taught in our Department ever since. The course is on a level intended for non-science majors with some algebra-level math content. As typical for a Physics PhD, I had never had a course in teaching methodology; I taught as I had been taught, via lecture/demonstration. I wish I had had this book when I started teaching and later!

I had taught the sound course for a few years when the Physics Department assigned it to another faculty member. Prof. José Mestre (one of the authors) and Prof. William Gerace had begun a research group in Physics Education in our Department. They studied how students learn physics and how best to teach the subject. When José and Bill took over the Theory of Sound course, they introduced innovations they had found to be successful in helping students learn physics. When I resumed teaching the course, I adopted some of the methods they had introduced. The change in my own attitude toward teaching the course was dramatic. José and Bill had written notes based on my course syllabus that were required reading before each class. Then, while I lectured and did demonstrations for part of the hour, the remainder of the time was used in active student learning. Multiple choice questions were shown on a screen, students both individually and in pairs figured out the best answers and submitted their answers via clickers to an automated system that recorded the answers and produced a histogram of results. By this I was able to see how well the class was understanding the material. There followed a round of discussion among class members on what was the correct approach to each question. The students were not just listening to me drone on but were actively involved in constructing their own knowledge. They were involved in the process, and just as importantly I was engaged with them, hearing what they thought and what they hadn't understood. The method made them feel like I wanted them to learn, and I felt I was in much better communication with them.

The clicker question approach is an example of formative assessment, in which testing is used as an aid to learning. I routinely gave out a practice test before each exam. Had I had this book then, I would have told the students that the best way to use the practice questions is to simulate a real timed exam, instead of, say, searching for the correct answers in the book or class notes while working through the questions. One remarkable finding relevant here is that studies have found students “who spent relatively more time being tested [apparently even on their own as in a practice exam] significantly outperforming those who spent time in repeated studying.” Using the exam in this way gives the students a better way of assessing their knowledge and preparation as well as facilitating active thinking about the subject.

The book is based on the idea that a physicist should teach the way one does research, that is, base methods on past research (“evidence-based instructional practices”), collect data to see what works, and refine the process. There are chapters on concept formation, expert-novice differences, problem solving, active learning, student study habits, and testing and long-term retention.

Let's look at one more technique mentioned several times in the book, this one about helping students solve problems in introductory courses. A usual student approach is to find a formula that has the variables in question and plug in to see if it gives an answer, that is, “plug-and-chug.” This method is in contrast to one that looks first for the proper relevant concept as a more expert solver might do; for example, in a mechanics problem, choosing between energy conservation or Newton's second law before trying equation manipulation. A suggested approach is to implement problem categorization methods, one of which is “strategy writing.” With this the student has to write the major principle that applies, justify why it applies, and describe a procedure in words that can be used to solve the problem. Only then does the student actually solve the problem.

In all the book is well organized, clearly written, with a host of proven physics teaching methods that can be applied to introductory courses and even more advanced courses. Out of these most instructors will find some that will seem most suitable and will likely improve their students' learning. Perhaps they might also improve the instructor's attitude toward teaching.

William Mullin is Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research involves low temperature physics, Bose condensation, and the foundations of quantum mechanics. His most recent book is “Quantum Weirdness” (Oxford University Press, 2017).