Slept Through Physics? Maybe It Doesn’t Matter

Does sleeping through physics - or math class for that matter - really make a difference to your life?

Let’s face it, we’ve all been bored in class. Some people express their boredom by doodling or staring out the window lustfully. Others simply sleep, a dangerous temptation. With your head on your desk, you miss valuable lessons that you’ll be tested on later, both on paper and in the real world.

But what if sleeping through some classes doesn’t matter? What does that say about those classes anyway? At Real Clear Science, blogger Ross Pomeroy confesses that he slept through physics. Experts now think that maybe Pomeroy had the right idea—or at least that he wasn’t missing much. Pomeroy writes:

But don’t take my word for it. (After all, I slept through at least 40% of my physics lectures. So I’m certainly not a reputable source.) Take the word of Professor Graham Giggs, former Director of the Oxford Learning Institute, who says that lecturing does not achieve educational objectives, nor is it an efficient use of the lecturer’s or the student’s time and energy.

Sure, some people get something out of physics lectures. About ten percent of the students, says Dr. David Hestenes. “And I maintain, I think all the evidence indicates, that these 10 percent are the students that would learn it even without the instructor. They essentially learn it on their own,” he told NPR.

How did these professors come up with that ten percent figure? Well, they gave students a test to check whether they were memorizing things or actually learning. Take this question for example:

Q: Two balls are the same size but one weighs twice as much as the other. The balls are dropped from the top of a two-story building at the same instant of time. The time it takes the ball to reach the ground will be…

a) about half as long for the heavier ball

b) about half as long for the lighter ball

c) the same for both

Of course, this is a classic experiment first done by Isaac Newton. And while students can recite Newton’s second law, they didn’t necessarily understand it. When given the test before and after the semester, students only gained about 14 percent more understanding.

So even if you had been sleeping through class, you wouldn’t be that far behind your more alert classmates. Some physics professors have developed a way around this problem—rather than lecturing, they put the students to work. No sleeping allowed. NPR describes a class taught by Eric Mazur, at Harvard:

At a recent class, the students — nearly 100 of them — are in small groups discussing a question. Three possible answers to the question are projected on a screen. Before the students start talking with one another, they use a mobile device to vote for their answer. Only 29 percent got it right. After talking for a few minutes, Mazur tells them to answer the question again.

Now, this doesn’t get at the question: should we be teaching physics anyway? If so few people are getting anything out of the class, what’s the point in having it at all? Andrew Hacker, at The New York Times argued that algebra, for instance, needn’t be required for students:

Mathematics, both pure and applied, is integral to our civilization, whether the realm is aesthetic or electronic. But for most adults, it is more feared or revered than understood. It’s clear that requiring algebra for everyone has not increased our appreciation of a calling someone once called “the poetry of the universe.” (How many college graduates remember what Fermat’s dilemma was all about?)

He argues that math, especially algebra, is a larger stumbling block than it is worth. Students don’t use the majority of math concepts that they learn in school, and instead of teaching them valuable skills, math classes taught by bad, or even just mediocre teachers, can scare kids off math for good.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Evelyn Lamb at Scientific American writes:

Eliminating abstract math education in the early school years, or allowing young students to opt out of rigorous math classes, will only serve to increase the disparity between those who “get it” and those who don’t. Those who have a grasp of mathematics will have many career paths open to them that will be closed to those who have avoided it.

But perhaps, like physics, even sitting through those classes is only benefitting about 10 percent of students. The rest, asleep or not, are purely being put off.

More from
Smithsonian Celebrates Mathematics Awareness Month
Five Historic Female Mathematicians You Should Know