Overcoming certainty: Concept test in Newtonian Mechanics
Student F=ma Concept test
Student version (.pdf)     Instructor version (.pdf)

Why this concept test was created?   While working as a graduate teaching assistant to Professor Thomas Kane for 5-years and later teaching as a young consulting professor, we frequently encountered students from top-ranked schools (MIT, CalTech, etc.) who were frustrated during the first month of advanced dynamics graduate instruction with what they considered "review" material, e.g., vectors, rotation matrices, differentiation, angular velocity, etc.

Unfortunately, many of these students performed poorly on the midterm (compared to peers) and were critical of the course, instruction, and instructor. After conversation, they typically acknowledged that they were not particularly focused on the class and their certainty in knowing the material caused them to overlook critical small details. Their performance on the final exam was dramatically better, but their angst discouraged some from future study. As a result, we start our first class with:

``The big picture is   F = ma.   The rest is small details.
If you are strictly a big-picture person, you may want to exit now.''

This concept test has true/false, circle the answer questions, etc. The seemingly simple questions require deep conceptual knowledge and fundamental understanding. For 10 years, we scored the test (mostly for curiosity). The average score of hundreds of graduate students from all over the world is 35%.

The instructions given to the students for the concept test are:

  • Do it within 1.5 hours - without books/internet etc.
  • The test is only graded for completion.
  • The purpose of the concept test is to alert you to missing fundamentals (we all have them).
  • Ideally, the instruction and dynamics book will correct the misconceptions.

Outcome: The high-confidence students, who sometimes inadvertently intimidated (or contaminated) peers with their confidence about the triviality of early topics, have a more positive mind-set for "review" material. The concept test also provides an overview of the learning journey ahead.