Tuesday, May 3, 2016

How do you teach students that the details DO matter?

For some reason I have only become more aware of this issue recently.
I have noticed, particularly among weaker undergraduate students, a lack of concern about details.
This is not just among beginning undergrads but even final year students.

Here are some examples, from a range of levels.

Force, energy, and power are not the same thing.
Each refers to distinct physical concepts and entities.
Similarly, temperature, heat, internal energy, and entropy...
The wave function, potential energy, and probability....

Every physical quantity has well-defined units. You need to state them and keep track of them in calculations.

Significant figures.
These need to be justified and self-consistent.

Arguments and solutions to problems.
These need to be stated in a logical order. Assumptions and approximations need to be stated and justified.

The sloppiness is particularly evident in the exam papers of weaker students. One might excuse some because of the stress and rush of the situation. But, I also encounter some of the confusion and sloppiness in private discussions and assignments. Sometimes I fear they hope they can "bluff" their way towards some partial marks.

How does one address this issue?

I really don't know. I welcome suggestions.

One can certainly "nag" students about how the details do matter and penalise them in exams and assignments for sloppiness. However, this seems to have limited effect.


  1. Indeed a hard problem.
    I think the solution lies in your observation that it's the weaker students that show this characteristic: I think only a decent level of understanding allows one to see that these details matter.

    Urging them to focusing on these details is trying to cure the symptoms instead of the cause.

    Though I do agree that checking units (which also reflects back on using the right quantities (energy, force...)) helps one to get the basics right and hopefully see the conceptual ideas behind an equation.

    But the bottomline is: if they don't understand the concepts, they'll not get these (important) details right. And while there is some back-action of learning a "trick" to get e.g. units right, that may aid in understanding the concept, the main problem is a lack of conceptual understanding.

    (And this is, in view of the elementary examples you list, a rather worrying observation of the level of the students.)

    1. Thanks for the helpful comment.

      I think you have a useful insight: the underlying problem is a lack of conceptual understanding. "nagging" the students and "punishing" them to behave better is treating the symptoms not the underlying cause.

  2. I think that weaker students tend to struggle with abstract concepts like potential, field, entropy. It's hard for them to write down the equation, especially if their math is weak, so they are unable to solve it anyway, but that's a different story.

    I found that some students tend to get a better understanding if they get a model they can easily visualize, like flowing water analogy for electric currents for example.