Using physics
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Eugenia Etkina, Distinguished Professor of Science Education at Rutgers The State University of New Jersey, shares additional thoughts on implementing Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE), that helps all students feel empowered by learning physics

In my first editorial, I described the Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) as a pedagogical approach to teaching and learning physics at all levels (Etkina, 2015). The ISLE approach has two major goals: to engage students in the activities that mirror scientific practice while constructing and applying new knowledge and to help them grow as learners and empower them during that process. The former means that everything that happens in the classroom and at home related to students learning of physics mirrors the activities in which practising scientists engage. The latter means that the decisions that the instructor makes while planning, enacting and assessing the instruction support student intellectual and emotional growth. In my second editorial, I focused on how to engage students in activities that mirror the practice of scientists from the first day of their learning. In this piece, I will focus on what happens in the ISLE-based classroom that helps all students feel empowered by learning physics instead of feeling inadequate, unable, and rejected.

Traditionally, physics is viewed as a very difficult subject that is accessible for very few people who are smart and good in maths. It is taught as a series of equations that the students need to memorise and apply to solve problems that deal with simplified systems (blocks on frictionless inclined planes) and have one correct answer. The students are assessed on their ability to answer a barrage of questions (in the U.S., these questions are usually multiple-choice) in a short time. Those who are slow or need more time to learn, have reading comprehension issues or are behind because of their maths skills, become lost in this game quickly. They drop out and begin thinking of themselves as incapable of learning physics. What can we do to change the situation?

Here, I will use the knowledge developed in cognitive science, disability studies, and science education to help us answer this question. In the previous publication, I gave an example of an ISLE-based activity that illustrates how students learn physics through the ISLE approach. Students working in groups using small whiteboards observe simple experiments, discuss patterns, devise explanations and continually test them using new experiments. The role of the instructor is to select the first observational experiment(s), scaffold their discussions and introduce the tools for reasoning. These tools are representations other than mathematics (in physics, these are motion diagrams, force diagrams, momentum and energy bar charts, ray diagrams and many others – see examples in Etkina et al., 2019).

When the students finally develop the concept and test it, they proceed to applications – solving experimental or paper-and-pencil problems. While engaged in all these activities, students work in groups, come up with a consensus, write and draw on the group whiteboards, and eventually share these whiteboards with the whole class. The instructor either invites the spokespeople from each group to present their group’s findings and solutions or asks representatives of the groups to walk around, study their peers’ whiteboards and note the similarities and differences. Then each group has an opportunity to revise their reasoning/solutions and reflect on the changes. When the students go home, they work on the assigned homework. If the homework is graded, the students have an opportunity to revise and improve their work without punishment (meaning that if the work is good, they get 100%). Back in class, the instructor might give them an individual or a group quiz to assess their understanding. Here, again, if a student does not do well, they have an opportunity to improve their work and are judged based on the final result. If they achieve a 100%, their grade will be a 100%, not a per cent less because of a second or a third attempt. The specific arrangements differ from course to course, but the main message is the same – the learning is encouraged and rewarded. When a complicated experiment is in order, the students engage in formal “labs”. They work together designing an experiment, assembling the apparatus, collecting and analysing data, arriving at conclusions and creating a group lab report (Etkina, Murthy and Zou, 2006). There are no cook-book instructions on how to proceed, but guiding questions and self-assessment rubrics that scaffold student work (Etkina et al., 2006). The instructor uses the same rubrics to assess the reports and again, if the improvements are needed and are done by the students – they receive full credit. Nowadays, most of this work is done through file-sharing software (Google Docs is one example) which allows the teacher to see student work in real-time, see who is doing the work in a group and how long it takes.

You might be wondering how the described activities help students grow as learners and empower them in the process. How do these activities support students intellectual and emotional growth?

When students observe the initial “observational” experiments, they have to describe their observations using simple language – this step levels the playing field for those who might have taken a physics course before and those who have not. As the students are not asked to predict the outcomes of these experiments before observing them, their intuition is not put to the test and no one feels unsuccessful.

When students look for patterns, they use tools other than algebra to analyse data – this step helps those who are not strong in algebra.

When students explain their observations, they do not need to come up with the “right answer” but instead devise explanations that are experimentally testable. This allows them to base new ideas on what they already know.

When students design experiments to test their explanations, they learn that rejecting an explanation is not a “bad thing” but instead, a productive step that is a part of authentic scientific discovery. Testing explanations and devising new ones allows the students to improve their reasoning without punishment. In addition, when students need to make predictions based on the explanations under test before running the testing experiments, they connect/integrate new ideas with their prior knowledge.

When engaged in steps 1-4, students collaborate which makes students with different strengths shine at different points, empowering individual students and the whole class as a community.

When being given an opportunity to revise their assignments without punishment, the students begin to value learning and perseverance instead of a pure grade. This allows different students to experience success at different points in time. The fact that assignments call for using different representations, not just mathematics, helps those with different skills, including those whose native language is not English.

To summarise, the ISLE approach to teaching physics is more than a logical progression of activities in which students engage. It allows the students to be successful at every point of their learning, build on their prior knowledge, develop perseverance and confidence. As Julie Maybee, a professor of disability studies commented in her recent book (Maybee, 2020, p. 190): “ISLE thus provides an example of an approach to teaching that avoids classifying people and worries instead about classifying and developing ways in which people with a variety of skills and abilities can access the content. In this case, ISLE focuses on creating a learning environment that produces a variety of ways for students with different skills and abilities to engage in socially meaningful, cooperative and student-initiated activities to build on what they know and access new knowledge about physics.”



Etkina, E. (2015). Millikan award lecture: Students of physics—Listeners, observers, or collaborative participants in physics scientific practices? American Journal of Physics, 83(8), 669-679.

Etkina, E., D. T. Brookes, Planinsic, G., Van Heuvelen, A. (2019). Active Learning Guide, 2rd Edition, San Francisco, CA: Pearson.

Etkina, E., Murthy, S., & Zou, X. (2006). Using introductory labs to engage students in experimental design. American Journal of Physics, 74, 979-986.

Etkina, E., Van Heuvelen, A., White-Brahmia, S., Brookes, D.T., Gentile, M., Murthy, S. Rosengrant, D., & Warren, A. (2006). Developing and assessing student scientific abilities. Physical Review, Special Topics, Physics Education Research, 2, 020103.

Maybee, J. E. (2020) Making and unmaking disability: The Three-Body Approach, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.


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Distinguished Professor of Science Education
Rutgers The State University of New Jersey, Graduate School of Education, Department of Learning and Teaching
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