5 Key Challenges in Teach Physics and how to Overcome Them

A career as a physics teacher is hugely fulfilling; by sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject, you get to show young people how physics is central to everyday life.

However, it can be hard to keep up with:

  • Planning creative and inspiring lessons
  • Marking mounds of homework and class work
  • Exam specification changes
  • Staying ahead of the often tricky subject knowledge.

I’ve been chatting to physics teachers all over the world and I’ve discovered the 5 KEY challenges in teaching physics. I’ve also tried to put together some ways to overcome them to become the inspirational, relaxed and confident teacher you see in all the teaching adverts!

The blog post below goes through each challenge in detail:

Challenge #1: Curriculum Changes

There is something that stirs deep within any teacher when they hear about “exciting new changes to the curriculum”.

The main curriculum challenges that physics teachers face at the moment are:

  • A greater importance placed on the mathematical requirements in the course;
  • Changes to practical assessment;
  • The linear nature of A level physics; and
  • The final grade based solely on exam performance.

Solution #1: Positive About Practicals

It is important to ask yourself,

“What has really changed about your day-to-day teaching of the course?”

In reality, much of the physics content remains the same. All that really has to be done is re-arranging the order of your resources and to include as much practical work in your teaching as possible. Most of the mathematical requirements are naturally included in the practical work. It will be challenging for the students to work to a completely linear course, but they have already done this with their GCSEs. The only real changes in the exams will be the inclusion of questions about practical work.

It is really important that:

You don’t only complete the required practicals throughout the two year course.

Written papers will assess knowledge and understanding of these required practicals, but the skills exemplified within the practicals will take a lot more practice for the students. For example, using signal generator and oscilloscope will take more than one try to fully understand.

You get the required practicals perfect!

It will really help if you do these practicals yourself, before you ask the students to complete them. Pitfalls in the apparatus are bound to occur and you will want to be ahead of the game.

Students have a complete record

The questions will probably focus on method, emerging relationships, graphical analysis and evaluation. If each student completes a full write- up of each practical, they should be adequately prepared for the exam.

Challenge #2: Time Constraints

The time constraints faced by a physics teacher are two-fold:

1. Time Consuming Planning Requirements

Labs and experiments often require physics teachers to spend a lot of time in preparation and set up. Therefore, they have less time to mark work during the normal school hours and often find themselves working late or coming in early to keep up.

2. In Class Time Constraints

Many labs cannot be completed in one lesson. Therefore, physics teachers are often faced with the challenge of dividing labs up over the course of a couple of days. A lot of planning and forethought needs to go into these lessons.

Solution #2 (a): Prioritise

It is pretty much impossible to be on top of thorough planning and constructive marking in teaching these days. There are too many administrative tasks and pastoral roles that are added to job descriptions.

Don’t try to do everything. I try to use the grid shown to prioritise jobs.

priority-box(The examples are my priorities – everybody’s will be different. Sorry to those who really value Health and Safety committee meetings!)

Solution #2 (b): Portion

Make sure that the students are working harder than you in the classroom. It is easy to let a lesson become the ‘teacher show”. Students will learn more if they are actively learning, rather than passively learning.

When you plan a lesson, it is helpful to note how much of the lesson you are working and how much of the lesson the students are working. If your side is bigger than theirs – the lesson is not right!

Solution #2 (c): Peer Marking

King’s College London completed research on improving assessment for learning and came up with a number of key strategies that should be implemented in the classroom. These included:

  • Making peer and self-assessment key components of learning.
  • Enabling young people to take greater ownership of their learning.

It is not lazy to ask the students to mark the work themselves! It is encouraging them to to think for themselves, become more resourceful, reflective and effective learners.

In physics, this method of marking works best if you provide a worked set of solutions to numerical problems. It is more obvious to the student where they have made mistakes, rather than just being faced with a bald numerical answer.

Challenge #3: Equipment Failures

I dread teaching electrostatics.

The Van der Graff is a favourite with the students, but it never works in our school.

Wave-Particle duality is a tricky one to teach fully, as we only have one electron diffraction tube and a couple of EHT power supplies.

The experiment that really drives me mad is one of the simplest – Conservation of Momentum. No matter how many measurements we take on that air track, we never prove the law of conservation of momentum!

Equipment failures and the lack of speciality equipment are a constant challenge for physics teachers, even if your department is particularly well stocked.

Solution #3 (a): Prepare and Practice

You can make your life much easier by familiarising yourself fully with the equipment.

  • Understand the limitations and range of the equipment!
  • What safety precautions must be taken?!
  • What could go wrong?

Example pitfalls might be:

  • mA fuse blows very easily on a multimeter.
  • Electrostatics pretty much never work.
  • Capacitor connected around the wrong way in an electric circuit.
I cannot overstate how important I think it is to obtain sample data before the experiment.

There will always be groups who don’t get the correct data. You having some sample data will allow them to complete their analysis regardless. Sample data will allow a meaningful discussion after the experiment.

Solution #3 (b): Demonstrate

I am a firm believer in the Visual-Auditory- Kinaesthetic (VAK) model. However, as a teaching technique, a demonstration is a valuable alternative to getting students to learn kinaesthetically – especially where equipment shortage and possible safety risks are at play.

Benefits of Demonstration:
  • Introduces students to specialised equipment;
  • Demonstrates the intricate motor skills required to undertake delicate tasks;
  • Encourages students to make predictions;
  • Allows formative assessment through continued questioning and answering;
  • Develops scientific enquiry.

My favourite demonstration is to use the discharging spark from a Van der Graaf Generator to light a bunsen burner.

Obviously, safety risks are quite high in this and you wouldn’t allow a student to do it!

I usually ask the students to draw a comic cartoon of the experiment afterwards – it can be funny, but it must also include the physics.

Solution #3 (c): Simulations

Simulations can be highly effective. They are tools that can enhance a well- planned lesson and the efforts of a good teacher, but they cannot replace them.

Here are some ways they can be used in your lessons:

Use them as part of a mini-lecture

You could pose a question about the situation, the students could discuss the question with their neighbours and vote on the answer. You then run the simulation to see if they answered correctly.

Allow students to work in pairs at the computer

The interaction required to understand the physics behind the simulation and to actually use the simulation properly is more quickly achieved by students working in pairs. Avoid groups of three and above, as one person may become disengaged.

Flip Learning

Pose a problem to the class and ask them to use a particular simulation to figure out the answer. (e.g. Will the skater reach the top of the hill? Explain) P.S. PhET Simluations are brilliant (and free!)

Click here to visit the PhET website

Challenge #4: Professional Isolation

Are you lonely?

The international shortage of physics teachers means that many schools only have one physics teacher (if any at all!). In my last school, the department was really big and we exchanged ideas, kept each other right about curriculum changes and generally had a bit of a laugh! But when you are the only physics teacher in the school, you may feel like you are meeting all these challenges alone.

The video below has been produced by Gatsby, which is a foundation set up by David Sainsbury to strengthen Science and Engineering skills in the UK (amongst other things).

It is worth viewing…

Solution #4: Partner Up!

Reach out to other physics teachers using the following networks:

TalkPhysics is a community for teachers of Physics and their supporters.

It is run by the Institute of Physics.

Join Here

The ASE is a community of teachers, technicians, and other professionals supporting science education.

Join Here

There are lots of physics teachers on LinkedIn.

You can connect with me on LinkedIn too.

Connect Here

You can always email me… I love to chat about physics teaching!
Email Sally

Challenge #5: Physics is Hard!

We’ve all heard students complaining, “Physics is hard” or even parents saying, “I couldn’t do physics at school”. Well, do you know what? Physics IS hard! and sometimes you may just feel like you are one step ahead of the students.

I used to have a mental block on entropy and would dread any student asking me to explain it further! Cue the classic use of, “I was about to set that for your homework”

There is a real problem with physics teachers not having enough training or background knowledge to deal with some of the high-end concepts in post-16 courses.
I really think we should support them as much as possible. It’s tough enough when you know the material inside-out!Sally Weatherly

Solution #5: Nail the Knowledge

Overcome your feeling of unease about the subject knowledge:

The answer to most difficult questions in physics could be answered with “it’s magic”, but you know this will come back to haunt you.
However, it genuinely is reasonable to reply with “can I have a think about that and get back to you?” [*cue mad google search while they complete their experiment].

Use a fellow physics teachers notes.
Don’t re-invent the wheel and make your own notes/ resources. Use some that are already made.

The TES and IoP have good free resources.

Of course, Guzled has complete resource coverage of all courses and you’re very welcome to use ours!

Apply for a fully funded subject knowledge enhancement (SKE) course.
Offered as full-time classroom-based study, part-time and evening/weekend study, or delivered online. It could also be a combination of these approaches.

Click here for more information about the SKE courses

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post on 5 key challenges in physics teaching, and how to overcome them.

Best of luck and I look forward to connecting again soon!

If you found this blog post useful, please share it!

About the Author

Sally Weatherly

Sally is the Guzled founder and, more importantly, a physics teacher. She led a large and vibrant department for 7 years, after training to teach in London. She is an IB Physics textbook author, Fellow of the IoP, Entrepreneur, Advisor for the AQA, Trustee for Dynamic Earth and an IoP Teacher Network Co-ordinator.