YouTube Comments Justify Changing Problem Sets?

In their recent “Physics Teacher” article titled “Unfortunate Outcomes of a ‘Funny’ Physics Problem: Some Eye-Opening YouTube Comments,” authors Josip Slisko and Dewey Dykstra Jr. present a detailed and well-sourced condemnation of humorous physics problems and the negative attitudes toward physics these types of problems inspire.

The article uses a selection of the 1700 YouTube comments in response to a single video titled “Real Word Problems From My Physics book – PH17” as its data source to show the danger and negative feelings the public may experience as a result of a single misguided problem, while simultaneously noting that research results on these topics are inconclusive.

I find the use of YouTube comments to justify the hypothesis unconvincing. Sure, the question described in the YouTube video is ludicrous, and its re-creation is fraught with problems. This should be an indictment of a poorly designed problem, not an indictment of more creative problems altogether. Absolutely, you can find 1700+ comments about the video, ranging from snarky to mean to vulgar. But let’s look at the source – many social media comments, especially Youtube comments, tend to cater to the dregs of culture.  As opposed to looking at the large response to the video as a sign of alarm, I look at the same data and see a large number of people who can remember similar “cute” problems… the problem itself made an impression, and these responders are thinking about physics outside the classroom.

  • Consider the standard projectile motion problem: a particle is launched off of a 20m cliff onto the flat ground below at an angle of 27 degrees above the horizontal with an initial velocity of 27 m/s.  Neglecting air resistance, how far from the launch site will the object land?

Such problems are a dime a dozen.  Occasionally these problems are even spiced with a kicked soccer ball or thrown football.  Student engagement level – fair at best. Now, how about we re-write the problem?

  • Evil Knievel is shot out of a circus cannon from the roof of a platform with azzzknievel velocity of 27 m/s at an angle of 27 degrees above the horizontal. The daredevil flies across a gaping chasm, eventually landing on an air cushion at a height 20m below the launch cannon. How far from the platform should the air cushion be placed in order to save Knievel from a trip to the hospital?

All of a sudden, we’ve added some interest to the problem, some extra motivation for solving it correctly, and provided a more realistic context to allow students to visualize the problem.  Of course, such problems could be taken to the level of absurdity:

  • A distraught zookeeper launches a rare orange-striped wombat from a catapult located at the top of a 20m cliff. If the wombat leaves the catapult at an angle of 27 degrees above the horizontal with an initial velocity of 27 m/s, how far from the base of the cliff will the wombat land? Neglect air resistance.

Even at the level of absurdity, the problem makes an impression. Realistic? No. But as you realize you can solve absurd problems such as this with basic kinematics, you also realize the wide range of projectile problems you can solve.

Based on my personal experience, teachers don’t need warnings about using “funny” problems in the classroom. We have enough real challenges and issues to deal with each and every class period.  If “cute” or “funny” problems engage just one more student, or shift a student’s paradigm just enough that they make a new connection, or the problem is so crazy it comes up that night around the dinner table, it’s one more valuable tool in our belts that I am more than happy to pull out and use whenever it’s appropriate to do so. Using a selection of response comments from a Youtube video as a data source to denigrate creative problem synthesis is premature. Instruction needs to be tailored and differentiated both to the personality of the instructor as well as to the personality of the class, and this may or may not include “funny” problems depending on the situation at hand.

2 Replies to “YouTube Comments Justify Changing Problem Sets?”

  1. It is not scientific to say that our article is totally absurd.

    Namely, there is, at least, one part in the article which can hardly be called absurd:

    In the article has been clearly said that real effects of “funny” problems on physics learning and students’ attitude toward physics should be find out through research.

    Before that we only have opinions not facts! Until we have facts no single opinion is better than the others.

    So, you think that “funny” problems are welcome if they are good even for one student. Our opinion is quite different: They are not welcome if they are bad even for a few of students. Youtube comments show that there are many students saying that they did not like school physics because of absurd problems.

    I don’t remember a single comment saying she or he learned physics better because dealing with funny problems.

  2. My apologies good sir, in re-reading my response to your article, I would agree with your assessment of my response, and would also agree that your article is not totally absurd. Further, your article is meant to be an eye opener and make us as educators strongly consider the effects our teaching styles have on students, an introspective and reflective process that can only serve our students in a positive manner. Thank you for taking the time to respond!

    I would continue to maintain that Youtube comments are not a representative source of data, and I believe you have to look at the effect of teaching styles as a whole. If a problem turns off a single student, or a few students, that does not necessarily negate its effectiveness — even for those students who state that they dislike the problems.

    Further, I would go on to say that if students are reviewing problems in enough detail to dislike the problems, in many cases you’re likely engaging them at a higher level than is typically observed… at least physics and the problem was memorable!

    At the end of each year my students submit an anonymous course review in which they grade the course and the instruction. A common theme among these reviews include positive remarks about fun and unique problems keeping the course fun and the students engaged.

    In summary, I would like to apologize for my overly strong comments — I believe your article was very well meaning and reminds us that it is worth taking the time to reflect on what is and isn’t effective in our classrooms, based on the student population in each class. I don’t believe that the data presented supports the hypothesis as written and implied, but rather highlights an opportunity for introspection and further study, which must be consistent with both the instructor’s personality and the personality of the students being taught.

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