Skip to content

Learning physics and computational modeling through worked examples

July 17, 2012

Today I saw this excellent post by Mark Guzdial, A report on worked examples and self explanations in media computation. In this post, Guzdial describes how he gave students an assignment to take a complicated piece of code, a worked example, and then had to develop line-by-line explanations of how the code functioned.

This got me thinking that this could be a great exercise both in helping students understand computational modeling in physics, and to assess that understanding. We already give students nearly complete pieces of code, but some of our work this past year interviewing students showed that they still have considerable difficulty explaining what how a program works, and I think producing a line by line explanation–perhaps as a screencast in Jing–might an excellent way to help them build that understanding.

I also realized that this doesn’t just apply to worked examples in programming. It could work just as well with fully worked out physics or math problems. Give a student a worked example to a problem, and then have them narrate this solution, giving justification to each line of work. Again, you could easily make this a screencast assignment using Jing, and I think it would push students to explain their reasoning in a way that simply solving a problem does not. And the variations are endless—if you really wanted to push things, one could even introduce mistakes into the worked examples, and ask students to explain the problem and the mistake.

Update 8:30AM 7/17/2012: Frank Noschese tweeted a bunch of additional links and resources about worked examples:

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist permalink
    July 17, 2012 7:34 am

    On occasion, it’s been clear to me that students are narrating the work of others, instead of their own. What’s been cool, though, is that their assessment scores don’t really improve. Listening to a student explain a solution that they haven’t really tried to understand really shows the holes in their understanding.

    • rhettallain permalink
      July 17, 2012 8:51 am

      I agree with Andy. I have found that even if students do a screencast of an example in the book – you can still really see if they understand that idea or not. It’s really awesome that you don’t have to keep finding new problems for them to do screencasts on – they can just use examples in the book.

      • July 17, 2012 9:03 am

        I agree with both of you, and think this might also be a good way to teach (or at least assess) how students read a text. You could give a student two screencasts showing strong and weak comprehension of the text and have them compare and contrast.

  2. July 20, 2012 10:19 pm

    I required a comment on every line or ‘paragraph’ of code from my kids this year, explaining what that line or group of lines did in plain English. I didn’t accept an assignment until they could interpret the code. I told many of the students that I was more than happy to do the coding for/with them, as long as they could tell me what they needed it to do. Honestly, I felt like it was one of the only pieces of scaffolding that I did that actually helped them.

    • July 21, 2012 12:36 am

      I like this idea a lot. I need to write up how we did interviews with students to see how well they understood one of the VPython programs they did—it was surprising to see some struggled to interpret even well commented code.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: