Francisco J. Mercado, Department of Physics & Astronomy

When we think about a physics classroom, more often than not, the picture that comes to mind is an ‘all-knowing’ professor standing at the front of a classroom writing on a blackboard while some of the students behind them are vigorously taking notes struggling to keep up. Others are attempting to complete the difficult problem set that they have to turn in by the end of the lecture. The remaining students in the class have checked out because it’s been at least five minutes since the professor has turned around to acknowledge them.

Although this classroom model may work for students that are highly motivated to learn physics, it fails to spark new interests in students new to the subject. In order to engage the students that are new to our field we, as instructors, must rethink how we present physics inside (and outside) of the classroom. Here are four tools to consider when doing so:

#1: The Internet

In this age of information we have access to a *wealth* of knowledge and discussion about virtually any topic you can think of. With resources such as Physics Forums, The Physics Classroom,  and HyperPhysics Concepts you have the opportunity to present resources that add to the material you present to students. Rather than restricting your students to your lectures and text, share resources that they would otherwise not know about to build on what you present in the classroom.

#2: Physics Simulations and Computer-Generated Visualizations

The quantitative nature of our field gives rise to the opportunity to code up accurate simulations and visualizations of physical phenomena. Incorporating these easily-accessible tools such as the PhET interactive simulation project, MyPhysicsLab, and Atom in a Box into your assignments is a perfect way to help your students improve their physical intuition by engaging with more than a simple hand-drawn, two dimensional model of a pendulum or an atom, for example.

#3: Collaborative Learning and Group Work

Although there is plenty of evidence that points to various benefits of employing group work in the classroom (Hammar Chiriac, 2014; Kilgo, Ezell, & Pascarella, 2015), most physics classrooms seem to be devoid of any collaborative learning. Whether it is in the form of a group project or a group exam (Wiemen, Rieger, & Heiner, 2014) giving your students a chance to work together will contribute to fostering a collaborative environment in which your students also have a chance to learn from each other.

#4: Inclusive Teaching and Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

One major issue in physics is that there is an overrepresentation of straight, white, able-bodied men (see APS statistics). This can create a feeling of non-belonging within groups of students that don’t fit the mold of what we’ve been told a physicist looks like. One way to combat this is to practice inclusive teaching and follow the three tenets of UDL (Black et al., 2015; Barteaux, 2014):

  1. Multiple means of representing content
  2. Multiple means of action and expression
  3. Multiple means of engagement in learning

Making sure that your course content is accessible to students of all backgrounds is a great way to convey the message that all are welcome in physics!

Incorporating these tools into our classrooms can help to reinvigorate the passion some students have for physics while simultaneously sparking curiosity in students new to the field. Moving away from the thousand-year-old classroom model illustrated above can open physics to more diverse minds that will eventually help solve some of humanity’s largest, unanswered questions about our universe.


Hammar Chiriac, E. (2014). Group work as an incentive for learning: Students’ experiences of group work. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-10.

Kilgo, C., Ezell Sheets, J., & Pascarella, E. (2015). The link between high-impact practices and student learning: Some longitudinal evidence. Higher Education, 69, 509-525.

The Physics Teacher 52, 51 (2014); doi: 10.1119/1.4849159.

APS statistics.

Black et al., (2015). Universal Design for Learning and Instruction: Perspectives of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education.

Barteaux, (2014). Universal Design for Learning.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 6th, 2020.