Helping ECP students to ‘think like a physicist’

Dawit Worku, ECP lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Physics, shares his impressions of and reflections on the Teaching and Learning in ECP seminar held on Tuesday 6 June 2017 on the Bellville campus.


Last Tuesday, Dr Honji Conana and Associate Professor Delia Marshall, ECP lecturers at UWC’s Physics department, presented the findings of their research that looked at the influence of mainstream and ECP pedagogic practices on enhancing student’s abilities to undertake problem-solving in Physics. (click to download the presentation Conana and Marshall_6 June 2017_final)

Their research results highlighted that in general  ECP students were much better at tackling Physics problem-solving in ways that mimicked those of physicists. Theoretically the study used concepts of semantic gravity and density to plot out how pedagogic interventions in the ECP classroom differed fundamentally from their mainstream counterparts.

In the ECP classroom students spent more time reading and unpacking the problem, modelling and exploring the physical representation of the problem before attempting to solve with a mathematical representation. Also highlighted was the degree of interaction between student and lecturers in the classroom when compared with the mainstream class. The ECP classroom was a hive of students-lecturer interaction. This research draws attention to the possibilities that exist within the ECP classroom especially for lecturers to assist students to think like physicists and to model their understanding of Physics not as a discipline composed of formulas, but rather one interested in modelling the natural world. I found the presentation fascinating and full of possibilities for my own classroom teaching.

‘This conference has helped me gain perspective’ – reflections on the SANRC FYE Conference

Amanda Morris, ECP Co-ordinator in the Graphic Design department, share some reflections of her recent participation at the SANRC FYE conference in Johannesburg. Amanda also presented a paper at this conference.


Attending the South African National Resource Centre (SANRC) First Year Experience (FYE) this year has been a revitalizing experience. Often as academics we get into the evil cycle of self-pity and trying to find someone to blame for the discouraging events we experience in our classrooms. When I attend conferences like the SANRC FYE it reminds me that despite the discouragement we experience sometimes, there are ways in which we can, through research, investigation and careful study be agents of change.


One of the keynote presentations that made me look differently at what we do was by Dr. Tia Brown Mcnair. Dr McNair encouraged those who work with first year students to consider whether their FYE empowers students or whether it helps them develop agency within the academic environment. This question is an interesting one as we (myself included) often see ourselves as the “liberators” of our students. We do not always recognize that they already come with a set of values, principles etc. that guide their practices and behaviour. Dr McNair described empowerment as providing students with knowledge/information that helps them understand that they can be successful. She describes the development of agency as not just giving students the knowledge or information needed to succeed. Dr. McNair stressed the importance of creating awareness among students of the communities that they are participating in as part of their educational/academic experience. She also explained that their interactions in these communities should be reciprocal. Students should be experiencing their role in their communities and how what they do impact/affect their community.An important recurring theme at the conference, was that just having a FYE does not guarantee any impact. FYEs should offer quality experiences that add value and achieve the desired results. The expectations set for such a FYE need to be set at a realistic level and should consider the needs of students. There was a comment, again by Dr. McNair, that we cannot just replicate what other institutions are doing but rather should tailor make FYEs based on who our students are and what will serve them.

Good practice

One of the other conversations that I found stimulating at the conference was around no longer referring or referencing “best practice” but rather “good practice” and even maybe beyond that to refer to “good practitioners”. This would give recognition to the fact that contexts and student attributes are different at different universities. Another issue that was raised at the conference was that one should not assume that students understand why we design learning interventions in the manner we do. It is our responsibility as first year educators to clearly state the purpose, the task and the criteria in any given activity. We should help students understand what is valuable to them in the educational experience and try to help them develop as intentional learners.

This conference has helped me gain perspective again, on where we are positioned at a national and also institutional level. I feel consoled by the fact that there are others with the same or similar experiences and that we can learn from each other by sharing experiences and expertise.