The introduction of the ‘study centre’ in schools has meant that pupils have far fewer lessons and have to work independently much more often. Many of them have difficulty with this. This is why teaching methodologist Henk Pol has developed a computer program to help secondary school pupils with their physics homework. He was able to demonstrate that his program can ensure pupils become better at solving complex problems. Pol will be awarded a PhD on 27 November 2009 by the University of Groningen.
‘Education today is strongly oriented towards independence’, says Pol, ‘but not enough thought has been put into how you can best support pupils.’ This is why he developed a computer program to this end: Physhint. The program presents the pupils with complicated physics problems. While trying to solve them, they can decide whether or not to make use of certain hints. ‘The program enables pupils to solve the problems in their own way. It is not a closed system with only one correct way of solving the problem. After all, you want them to develop their own strategies. This makes the program supportive but not directive.’
For example, pupils have to solve the following problem through the program: one train leaves Amsterdam and another train leaves Paris. One of them leaves later than the other and they travel at different speeds. When will they meet each other? During the solving process pupils can choose between simple hints or more detailed hints that offer more help.
Pol, who was not only a researcher but also a physics teacher, tested the program on his pupils. Their homework for fourteen lessons was to work with the program. ‘In general they found Physhint fun and useful. The program also keeps track of what you are doing so a competitive element also crept in. In addition, the program gives you feedback straightaway, which is very stimulating. Usually you only hear about the mistakes in your homework the next day.’
Another advantage is that the teacher doesn’t have to spend as much time on giving feedback and thus can concentrate more on other things.
Pol then investigated whether pupils who had used Physhint had got better at solving complex problems. He did this by testing the pupils before and after the experiment. He then compared their results with those of a control group. It turns out that pupils who worked with the program had developed all kinds of general solution strategies. In addition, Pol saw that pupils were using the program in a very sensible way. ‘You’d expect pupils to take the easy route and immediately click on the more detailed hints. However, what you see is that some of them start with the easy hints and then progress on to the more difficult ones.’
According to Pol, developing general solution strategies is very important. You can also use them when resolving everyday problems. ‘Take choosing a health insurance policy. You have to weigh all kinds of different aspects against each other as well as combine them, and finally you have to make a decision. That’s something you can practise in physics.’
Pol points out that there is very little attention paid by schools to these type of skills. ‘Instead, a great deal of emphasis is placed on content-related knowledge and specific skills such as working with formulae.’ He hopes that his program may go some way to filling this gap.
Pol also noted that there is a lot of room for improvement when using computers in education. ‘Schools often seem to think that they have to do something with computers. But they never seem to examine whether the computer dovetails with their learning outcomes. A great deal of computer material is developed that way, but computers should be a means and not the aim in itself. If you put pupils behind a computer they’ll appear to be really busy – but they’re actually learning very little. Computers have a great deal of potential, but if you want to use them properly you have to invest a great deal of time and effort. Take my program, for example, that took a year to develop.’
Henk Pol (1968) studied applied physics in Groningen. After graduating in 1993, Pol took the teacher training course and became a physics teacher. In 1995 he also joined the staff of the Groningen teacher training programme. He started his PhD research in 2001. In 2009 he joined the University of Twente as a teaching methodologist in physics. Pol is a member of the national committee for the renovation of Physics teaching (NiNa) and is the chair of the VWO physics section of the Examinations Board.
H.J. Pol. Tel.: 053-489 3130/3560 (work), e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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