“Consider the topic we started working on yesterday.”

I’m referring to the beginning of a unit on inertia.  I start the class by dramatically pulling a tablecloth out from under a china place setting, complete with a wine glass filled with water and a lit candle.  It’s a classic Physics demonstration, and I play it up, getting right to the point of pulling the cloth only to stop and talk about what they should watch for or how they shouldn’t try this at home.  By the time I actually do the trick, they are all ready - it always gets their full attention.  

Once the big moment arrives, assuming I’m not picking up broken china on the floor, I give them a moment to talk about why they think the trick worked.  Without answering any questions as a whole group, I have the students spread out throughout the room and work on a station lab.  This is a set of open-ended activities to explore the physical meaning of inertia:  they crash carts with dolls strapped in with rubber bands and again when they are unstrapped to help them think about the Physics of seat belts;  they create collisions of heavy carts with lighter ones; they watch a video of a car crashing into a brick wall and the way the crash-test dummy moves with and without a seat belt; they used carts and blocks of wood to simulate a car being rear-ended by another car and the effect of inertia on the head of a passenger undergoing whiplash.  (By the way, it’s not what you think it is.   Technically, when a car is hit from behind, the head does not snap backward, as most people think.  Rather, it stays where it is — an object at rest stays at rest — while the body is pushed forward by the seat, leaving the head behind until the neck pulls it forward.)  

When we get around to talking about this lab, I remind my students that the neck was not designed to pull the head in this way, so it’s better to have a headrest do it instead.  As they are working, I wander around paying attention to their conversations and asking them occasional questions to focus their attention on the more subtle issues at hand.  They finished the activities earlier this morning, which brings us back to this conversation.

“By now, you all probably have a sense of what inertia is, but there’s still some work to do to understand it deeply.  So tonight, you’re going to do your first homework assignment in this class.  You’ll read the four sections of the book that I’ve listed on the board.  They are about topics you have been exploring in the station lab.  I’d like you to read the four sections and take notes on what you are reading.”

Several students are visibly unhappy.  One lets out an audible groan.  

“Do we really have to take notes?”Mark asks.  “I really don’t learn from taking notes - it’s just a waste of time for me.”

A number of students are agreeing with him.

“Mark, I know thatpeople learn in all kinds of ways, and as you’ll see, in this class we’re really going to be able to pay attention to everyone’s different learning styles.  But I also know that studies are very clear - writing about what you’ve read increases how much you learn and remember, particularly when you have to think about how to say it in your own words.  Since learning is our central purpose, we need to use all the tools at our disposal.  And wait a little until we talk about how you can take notes - I think you’ll see that it will serve a common-sense purpose.  Besides, if you do it right, it will be a great summary of what you’ve learned when you are studying for a test or an exam.