More thoughts about teaching on the block system

So, yes, it's been nearly two months since my last post, and posts were few and far between even then. Well, right now I'm on winter break (and have been for almost a week), and I'm back into a state of mind where I can post. There may be a torrent of them in the next several days; we shall see.

A few months ago, as I was just getting started here at Quest University, I posted about teaching on the block. The block system is how classes are organized here, in the same way as Colorado College. Students take one class at a time, and hyperfocus on it. That also means that I'm teaching one class at a time, but cram a full semester's worth of teaching into 18 extremely intense days. When I'm teaching on the block, I can do almost nothing else. It really does take away your focus. It's not just the hours. Yes, because I try to be available to my students, many days I'm spending several hours talking to students in my office outside of the three "contact" hours in class. (There are also students who aren't in my class, but with whom I talk, either just because they drop by, or because I'm taking them on as a mentor for their last two years, or because they want to talk about future classes and independent studies.) However, it's also the "energy" level. I put energy in scare quotes, because of course it's not something that's measured in Joules and that would be recognizable as energy to a physicist, but it's the sort of "energy" that we mean when we tell each other that we're feeling particularly low energy today. There's only so much creativity and intellectual effort that one can put into something until one is exhausted, until the point of diminishing returns is indistinguishable from its asymptote. (This is why the notion that grad students are supposed to work 80 or 100 hours a week, and the schedule that medical residents or programmers on a "death march" are put on, are fundamentally absurd.)

I'm learning other things about teaching on the block— things that, to be fair, I was told about ahead of time. The most important lesson is probably "less is more". This is true of teaching in general. When I first started at Vanderbilt, there were seminars about teaching for the new faculty where they basically told us this. (Faculty would say that every time they taught the same class again, they'd try to cover less than the previous time.) This is even more true on the block. The format just does not lend itself to "survey" classes (of which I have to admit that I'm dubious anyway!). Because you're working closely with students for three hours, probably three consecutive hours, each day, it's far more suited to getting into stuff in depth than it is to driving by a large number of topics.

This last block, I taught a first course in calculus-based physics. I used Thomas Moore's books Six Ideas That Shaped Physics. I'm finding that (with one or two caveats) I like these a lot. There are six books. At Pomona, he uses three each semester. Each chapter is designed to go with a single 50-minute lecture period. Already, you can see that I have to adapt a little. I find, however, that three chapters is far too much for a single 3-hour class meeting. Thomas Moore goes through three books a semester, and I'm doing the same thing right now: three books in December, three books in January. However, next time I teach this, I think I'm only going to use two books each course. That does make me a little sad, as the third book from Physics I is Relativity, and I think it's very cool that if students only take one calculus-based physics course, they get some Special Relativity. (I also really like the way he does Relativity, emphasizing the metric (or the "invariant interval"), and getting to that before the "cool effects" of time dilation, simultaneity, and length contraction.) However, my observation is that we rushed through the material too fast, and that students didn't digest the material as well as I had hoped. On many things, I wished we had a second day to work through problems and work with the things we were working on. So, in the future, I'll do Conservation Laws and Newtonian Mechanics in the first physics course; Relativity and Electromagnetism in the second; and save Quantum Physics and Thermodynamics for the third. (That will be two years from now; Quest isn't big enough at the moment to teach introductory calculus-based physics every year.)

As time goes by, I hope to find a way to keep up with blogging while teaching on the block. However, if I'm slow to post, it's almost certainly because teaching on the block really does take over your life. It may only be during the summer, or during blocks I'm not teaching (which at the moment appear to be being taken over by planned independent studies!) that I will be able to keep up with blogging!

5 responses so far

  • Heather says:

    What do you think of the E&M section of Six Ideas? We use that curriculum at Wheaton (I haven't taught that course yet, though), and the E&M section is always under discussion for improvement needs.

  • rknop says:

    I don't have deep thoughts about it yet, as that's coming this January, and I have only looked through that book cursorily so far. I won't really know what I think about it until it makes contact with the students.... Ask me again mid-January!

    I am going to be using the draft third edition of the book, rather than the second edition. For all of the others, I'm using the second edition. (It's sort of odd; the draft third edition is fully published, and you can buy it, but somehow it's still called a draft. It's like paper publishing is starting to follow the models of online publishing, where things like Google Scholar are released to the public as Beta and stay that way for years.)

  • Katie Mae says:

    Hey, we used those same Moore books in our Physics I/II classes at Colorado College! Three per block. I don't remember the exact order, but I know that we spent the first week of the Physics II (E&M) course on Special Relativity.

  • rknop says:

    Katie -- yeah, I asked Shane about using them on the block before I started. He tells me that they've gone back to using something like H&R&W.

    One thing I did observe was that the first book (the "Conservation Laws" book) unnecessarily dances around Calculus. He does this because he's thinking that students may be taking calculus concurrently with Physics, so he wants to give them a chance to get something out of Calculus in the first third of their class, and as such doesn't assume that they've yet seen integrals and such in the first book. I do wonder if this really works-- does your typical Calculus I class really get to integrals in the first third of the class? However, it really doesn't apply on the block system. If they have had calculus before the N book, they've had calculus before the C book! Next time I teach this, I'm definitely going to write some calculus-based supplements to go along with the C book. In a few places, the way he dances around calculus ends up obfuscating the issue, I believe, if you already do know calculus.

    Interesting that you did Relativity in Physics II if you also did three books a block. When I go to two books a block, Relativity will be the first part of the E&M course. However, if you're doing three a block, did Thermo or Quantum make it into the first block?

  • Cassandra says:

    Is it really possible to learn technical material in this format? Personally I can't imagine it. My preference was always the semester format over quarter over summer session -- in other words the longer the better so I had time to absorb and remember.