The predictions of such a constructivist theory of learning can be quite jolting. For example, it implies that the new understandings individually generated by students in a physics class are likely to differ considerably from student to student, due simply to the different prior understandings the students individually hold. And perhaps more importantly, it also makes a significant prediction for the class as a whole: the outcome expected by the instructor of the instructional process, the listening to lectures, the reading of the text, the working of problem sets, the studying for exams, will be considerably different from reality, if the instructor is not conscious of and does not take into account the actual understandings and constructs that the students bring with them to class. Indeed, a growing number of research studies have focused on what physics students actually understand conceptually after instruction, as opposed to memorized algorithmic approaches to problem solving; these studies confirm these predictions of a constructivist theory of learning.
But what are the prior understandings and constructs that students bring to particular physics or other science courses? What depth of conceptual understanding of a given topic is appropriate and most useful at particular levels? How can instruction be structured so that it facilitates studentsÕ connecting prior knowledge with new information and their constructing new understanding for themselves? These are some of the questions being addressed by Dr. Potter and students working with him. One significant effort focuses on the introductory physics course taken by biological science students. As part of their masterÕs thesis, physics graduate students have uncovered unexpected ways students conceptualize particular physical phenomena. Other students, as part of their experience as a teaching assistant, have helped to explore alternatives to the traditional laboratory and how it can be used to help students be actively engaged in connecting to their prior understandings. Another research effort focuses on the significant role played by visual models of atomic scale phenomena and finding visual models that help rather than hinder learning. By approaching the learning and teaching of physics scientifically, significant progress can be made in increasing the quality of physics and science instruction at all levels.
In addition to this research in physics teaching and learning, Dr. Potter remains a contributor to the condensed matter physics group. His research focuses on magnetic refrigeration and dipole-dipole interactions in dielectric solids.
Honors and Awards
Wendell H. Potter
American Physical Society American Association of Physics Teachers National Science Teachers Association American Educational Research Association Sigma Xi
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