It’s time to break bad learning habits during the pandemic

1 year ago

I was in academics for over 20 years as a member of the physics department at Southeast Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. Here the department is small enough for all of us to share the load of the course, which is quite nice – it gives me the opportunity to teach a wide range of courses, from physics (for non-scientific specialties) to all the way to quantum mechanics.

In the early years of the pandemic, everyone in education had to adapt, and most of our activities took place in less than ideal conditions. At my school, we started by moving all classes online using Google Meet. (It wasn’t much fun.) This was supplemented by short lecture videos. (I really enjoyed making them.) We then implemented a hybrid model where some students would be in the classroom and some would be online. (It was terrible.)

While distance learning may have some benefits, as a teacher I have noticed that over the past couple of years we have all developed bad habits. Have you noticed that after a vacation, when you sat and watched too much football, and ate more than usual, your physical fitness may not be at the usual level? Well, the same can happen with training.

With exercise, you know that after the holidays you need to hit the gym or go outside to get back in shape and feel ready to take on the world. I think learning is more about figuring out how to constructively use the technology that helped us transition to remote work, rather than relying on it as a crutch.


It can be shocking to realize how much power we carry with us all the time. Your phone is not only a very powerful computer, but also a decent camera and many other sensors.

Smartphones are often used in schools: the phone can be used to collect and analyze data. As an experiment, students can use the phone’s built-in accelerometers to measure the distance an elevator travels. Or how about using long exposure photography to measure the speed of the International Space Station? You can even solve physics problems by writing Python code right on your phone, or use the built-in lidar to create 3D room maps.

In large lecture sessions, as a first step in class discussions, I invite students to use their phones to vote on their answers to concept questions. (One of my favorite stories is about the acceleration of a thrown ball at its highest point. The usual answer is that since the velocity is zero, the acceleration is also zero, but it is not. In fact, if the acceleration were zero at the point the highest point, where the velocity is also zero, the ball will just magically appear to be stationary.)

However, there is one way students use their phones in class that I don’t think is always a good idea: they take pictures. Everybody. (Admittedly, this has been going on for a while, so it’s not solely related to the pandemic.) Don’t get me wrong – I take a lot of photos too. Photos are not just a great way to capture the memories of your beloved dog. they can also serve as a reminder of things we need to do, like take a photo of the grocery list. So what’s the problem with students taking pictures in class of solving physics or deriving an equation?

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