Using Visual Representations to Help Solve Abstract Physics Problems

By year 6, pupils are skilled mathematical problem solvers. They can solve multi-step questions involving abstract concepts. This sounds like GCSE physics. Many year 6 pupils are taught to use visual representations to facilitate their problem solving. I wondered whether this would work in physics. I think it does.

I have put together a booklet containing problems and model answers using the Singapore Maths visualisation method: the bar-model. My goal is to carry out research to demonstrate whether bar-model in physics facilitates long-term learning.

In the meantime – I thought I would share the booklet to get feedback. The link is below. If you use it, please give me feedback.



Using Visual Representations to Help Solve Abstract Physics Problems – Ben Rogers(3)

With thanks to Jonathan Wragg, Lyndsay Sawyer, Ryan Doney and Anand Chauhan of Paradigm Trust for their knowledge, support and enthusiasm for this project (and @ollie_lovell for spotting embarrassing mistake!)

Using bar-model to represent current visually
Using bar-model to represent current visually

Using Physics Questions to Build Problem Solving, Literacy and Knowledge.

A few weeks ago I observed an English teacher pull a sentence apart. A line from Romeo and Juliette was on the board and the class spent ten minutes together identifying the parts of speech (verb/noun/particle etc); the effect of words on the reader (to connote is a verb – I didn’t know that) and language techniques (repetition, alliteration, rhyme, personification etc). They marked it all up on the board. The students were practising marking-up the same sentence on paper (board=paper from Teach Like a Champion 2.0).

I thought it was like looking at a diagram goal free . Without worrying about the question at first, students were laying down all of the information they could about the line.

Then, as a class, they began to add the context. The result was an exploded sentence, with all of the bones exposed.

They answered questions about the line.

I wondered whether I could do something similar with a physics sentence – specifically an exam question. Instead of looking at the language techniques, I would pull apart the vocabulary and knowledge.

So I took some exam papers and chose a couple of questions to try.

The first obvious thing is that for GCSE physics questions (especially higher tier), single sentence questions are rare. Also, many questions have diagrams:

So I split the task into several parts. First, we went ‘goal-free’ on the diagram, which took 5 minutes using a think-pair-share.

goal-free 1-page-001
Goal-Free exploration of the diagram using Think-Pair-Share activity

(AQA Physics Unit 1 June 2016)

We did a mini control-the-game (Reading Reconsidered) on the opening line (you can see the mark-up we did on vacuum below).

Finally, we got to the close-reading of the question line. I think the student’s marked-up sheet explains what we did as well as I could write it. It was a collaborative effort – I asked students to do this in pairs and then we shared. I was modelling on the board.

Then they answered the question.

kettle close-read-page-001
A close-read of the question followed by a write/rewrite (see TLaC and Reading Reconsidered by Lemov)

We shared and read the mark scheme and the students did a rewrite.

The whole task took 20 minutes, which is a big investment for one question. But I recommend doing it regularly because it does three things:

  1. It exposes students to both technical and non-specialist vocabulary, in a physics context, over and over again. You don’t need to plan and track the high mileage non-specialist words – they come up naturally. Technical words are also experienced, in context, over and over again, building understanding.
  2. It teaches student how to read a question.
  3. It teaches students how to write a good answer.

This sequence is an effective and simple way to develop literacy in physics lessons. It does several jobs pretty well. With practice, you might be able to get the whole sequence down to 10/15 minutes – but I’m not there yet. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else tries it or does something similar.




When knowledge is wrong…

Babies are born knowing physics. They express surprise when an object appears to be suspended in mid-air or pass through walls (nice article here). These are the primitive physics schemas we are all born with. Onto these, we add experiences from our lives: metals are cold; batteries run out of charge; the sun moves. Then in physics lessons we try to supplant this knowledge with formalised knowledge. With mixed results.

A metal cup to keep drinks cold.

Continue reading “When knowledge is wrong…”

What are the Cognitive Loads of reading and how can we reduce them?

Reading is a physics problem that doesn’t receive much attention in class. I think it should. Science professionals read a lot:

How many hours of professional STEM reading per week?


It turns out that the people who responded to the survey read a lot. Almost 85% of them read professional texts for more than 5 hours per week and 20% of them read for more than 15 hours per week. And they read to learn…

Why STEM professionals read

But most weren’t taught to do it at school. 

Who teaches scientists and engineers to read professional texts?

This last chart troubles me. I know STEM texts (exams, textbooks, papers) are different to other texts. They use different vocabulary; follow different conventions and have a different purpose. Either learning to read these texts is so easy, it doesn’t require teaching, or it is hard and we are letting learners down.

How many capable young scientists and engineers are dropping out because they can’t access the information in texts? I worry about this a lot.

Cognitive Load Theory explains why reading is difficult and tells us how to make it easier. All three memories are in use:

  • long-term memory – the knowledge you already have. Commit as much to memory as possible – use quizzes every lesson. 
  • working memory – where we compare what we’ve read to what we know and try to make meaning. There isn’t much we can do to boost this, though a good night’s sleep always helps me. 
  • external memory – the text, and any scribbles you’ve added to it. This is a skill and we should teach it. 

Comprehension depends most on what you already know. The two most important things for reading are in your long term memory (or they need to be). They are vocabulary and knowledge. Readers who are equipped with these are equipped to understand texts.


Science teachers are good at teaching science vocabulary. We explain clearly; we use example sentences; we revisit; we match words to diagrams. We use every trick we know.

But we ignore key non-specialist vocabulary. Words like: determine, suggest, establish and  system (I took these from a couple of recent GCSE papers).

These words should be taken as seriously as technical vocabulary. It is hard to choose words to focus on. I tend to teach words as I come across them in textbooks and exam papers (especially if I think they could come up again).


Along with vocabulary, the most important part of understanding is what you already know: your schemata. As we read, the information in the text is held in your working memory to be presented to knowledge from your long-term memory like a debutante or a novice speed-dater. If sense can be made, great. If not, the reader has work to do. 


Skills get tough press – but there are a few reading skills (or habits) which make a difference. These are the four that expert science readers (like us) use most often.


  • I Wonder…. Expert readers ask questions of the text. Often these questions are related to meaning, but they can be “I wonder what that word means?” or, “I wonder why the writer said that…”
  • In other words…. Paraphrasing (rewording, often making clearer) is a powerful comprehension checking skill/habit.
  • I predict…. Asking readers to predict what comes next in a test is a useful way of drawing attention to the structure and conventions of scientific texts – it is extremely useful when scanning a text for the information you want to be able to predict whether the information might be in a nearby section.
  • So far… Summarising is a habit which encourages prioritisation of information.


If these activities can be practiced enough (several times over a few weeks, with occasional top-ups) they quickly become part of a reader’s reading schema, increasing your students’ ability to learn from texts.

This blog is a development of the blog I wrote in 2015 for the Royal Society of Chemistry – here. I am reassured to find that I still agree with most of what I wrote then. Thank you if you’ve stuck with me all this time!


Haven’t We Got Enough To Do Already? Why Science Teachers Should Teach Vocabulary and How to Make it Stick


There are words in the English language that science teachers wish the English department would teach – words like process, appropriate and monitor. We don’t expect anyone else to teach scientific vocabulary such as photosynthesis and nucleus, but if someone (English teachers?) could teach all of the rest, that would be great.

bitesize sankey
Tier 2 words: summarise, process, involved, x rather than y.

Worse luck – it doesn’t work that way. If you want your students to be able to read science textbooks and understand exam questions, teaching this sophisticated, but non-specialist vocabulary is down to you.

Specialists call these words tier 2. Here is my strategy for teaching tier 2 words in science. Continue reading “Haven’t We Got Enough To Do Already? Why Science Teachers Should Teach Vocabulary and How to Make it Stick”

Science: A Great Source of Metaphor…

Have you got time to read two very short science texts? Both of them are surprising and wonderful.

First text: a beautiful piece of writing by Lewis Thomas called ‘The Lives of A Cell’ (thelivesofacell)   – you will thank me for this.

Second text: the original paper by Crick and Watson (watsoncrick) announcing the structure of DNA (it’s 1 side of A4 and it is readable – just read it).

Crick and Watson – DNA model

Continue reading “Science: A Great Source of Metaphor…”

Imaginary Ice Block Discovered in School Field Causes Writing and Reading

Giant Ice Block Found in School

The whole of this blog centres on a mean trick (and I feel bad about it), which has produced something special, like pearl accreting around grit. I’m the grit.

Last week my colleagues and I pretended that a giant ice block fell into the school field. We dug a hole, put police tape around it and faked a letter from the local police. We intended it as a stimulus for reading and writing, which it has been, very successfully. We told the children that one of us believed it was an enormous hailstone, while I countered that it was obviously an ice meteorite. We were in role. They believed us. We were very convincing. We took it too far. They still believe it.

So, ignore the dubious heart of this tale. The work is worth it.

Continue reading “Imaginary Ice Block Discovered in School Field Causes Writing and Reading”

Guericke’s Sulphur Sphere

It seems reasonable to suppose that if the Earth has a fitting and appropriate attractive potency it will also have a potency of repelling things that might be dangerous or disagreeable to it.

Otto von Guericke 1663

Otto von Guericke was an extraordinary engineer. He is famous for inventing the vacuum pump (and disproving ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ – a pernicious error of the ancient Greek philosophers – Aristotle this time).

In 1654, Guericke used his pump to evacuate the air from his famous Magdeburg Hemispheres. These are two hollow hemispheres placed together and the air inside them pumped out. 16 horses were unable to pull the hemispheres apart – the most dramatic and famous physics demonstration of all time.  Continue reading “Guericke’s Sulphur Sphere”

The Versorium Needle

A draft extract from my book using narrative to teach the big ideas of physics:

These are the utterly false and disgraceful tales of the writers.

William Gilbert, 1600

I will start my history of electricity with an utterly false and disgraceful lie: amber, when rubbed, will not attract dried basil.

The ancient Greek philosophers had a method for finding the truth. Observation played a part, but only observation of naturally occurring phenomena. Experiments did not count, because experiments are artificial. Observation combined with reason was the preferred method of finding the truth. This produced excellent mathematics but dodgy science. They claimed that amber would not attract dried basil, but did not test this claim. Continue reading “The Versorium Needle”

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