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January 6, 2020

Teaching Physics by Putting Students First

Matthew Wright, PhD with a student

Associate Professor Matthew Wright, PhD, talks with sophomore Aaqil Khoja.

When physics students stressed over their final exam last December, Matthew Wright, PhD, brought in two secret weapons: Pepper and Fred, a pair of guinea pigs, to calm their nerves.

Dr. Wright, associate professor and chair of the physics department, has a reputation for using unusual and playful teaching methods inside and outside of the classroom. His innovations in teaching have been featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education. His op-ed “Teaching Physics With Love” was published by Inside Higher Ed and EAB, and his method of using clubs to improve student success was featured in Faculty Focus. He has won awards not just for his physics acumen, but also for how he supports and reaches his students, exemplifying Adelphi’s commitment to providing personalized and engaging educational experiences.

“Show students that you care about them,” Dr. Wright said. “It makes them more receptive to learning.”

Pizza, slime and physics

The guinea pigs, for example, were part of his special session of extended office hours before exams. More than 20 students showed up to enjoy pizza, make slime and, of course, work on physics problems.

“It’s about caring for the mental health of the students,” Dr. Wright said. “I take pride in teaching one of the more difficult classes on campus. But if you’re going to push your students, you also have to make sure you’re there for them.”

To make the midterm exam in his Introduction to Physics course less overwhelming and more engaging for students, Dr. Wright gives students five minutes to silently review the test at the start, and then 10 to 15 minutes to work in groups, without pencils, just to talk through the problems.

He further empowers students to get creative with physics. Since 2016, he has asked students to make educational physics videos using their own artistic skills like performing rap songs and making cartoons. Lani Chau ’18 taught the concept of torque through swing dancing, and Dr. Wright still shows her video to his first-year classes.

Meeting students on their level

The professor also breaks down barriers so students can more easily approach him. At the beginning of last semester, Dr. Wright noticed a group of students who were less engaged with the class and not performing well on tests. He wanted to encourage them to push harder to grasp the material and take part in classroom discussions. He found a spot in the department where they could study for a couple of hours together each week—and he let them know they could always come to him if they were having trouble.

“When they had a big test coming up, I wanted to make sure there was no barrier,” Dr. Wright says. “So I just got my laptop and I sat with them and worked on other things. And when the questions came up, I answered them.”

After each class, Dr. Wright gives students an exit ticket on which they can anonymously share feedback.

“He makes the class a really comfortable environment where you can always ask questions,” said Khoja. “There’s no judgment at all, and he makes sure everybody is having fun while also studying and understanding the material.”

Dr. Wright also knows not all problems can be solved with physics, in which case he’ll help students find the resources they need.

“If somebody is really struggling with something outside of the classroom, it’s going to affect their in-class performance,” he says. “The best thing might be to get them to student counseling or to just listen.

“I do a lot of listening. Then we do the physics together.”


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