Teachability: It's harder to teach a young dog new tricks


  • David J. Low UNSW Canberra, ADFA
  • Kate F. Wilson UNSW Canberra, ADFA


Previous studies have found that taking a ‘gap year’ has a positive effect on students’ achievement at university. The positive effects of the gap year have been ascribed to improved life skills and higher motivation. However the effects of taking longer between leaving high school and beginning tertiary studies are unclear. In contrast, we find that students straight out of senior secondary studies of physics, and those who have taken only a single gap year away, have no significant difference in gain in conceptual understanding of Newtonian physics, measured using the normalised learning gain on the Force Concept Inventory. However, we find that those who have been away from study for two or more years, and those who have never studied physics before, have a 50% higher normalised learning gain than those fresh from school or with a one year gap. This may be because students without a significant gap period have lower motivation, and are less receptive to having their ideas challenged.

Author Biographies

David J. Low, UNSW Canberra, ADFA

David Low pretends to be a physicist at work, where UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy pays him to lecture and research. In reality, he's somewhere between a glorified meteorologist and a failed electrical engineer, who spends a lot of time administering courses. However, working at a military academy allows him some degree of leeway in claiming board-based wargames as a tax deduction, so he's happy to keep telling the story.

Kate F. Wilson, UNSW Canberra, ADFA

Kate Wilson is a senior lecturer in the School of Engineering and Information Technology at UNSW Canberra (UNSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy), where she teaches introductory statics and convenes a teaching training program for postgraduate tutors and demonstrators in science and engineering. Kate is a past holder of an Innovative Teaching and Educational Technology Fellowship at UNSW and was a member of the Sydney University Physics Education Research Group and has worked on three physics discipline based ALTC projects in various capacities. Kate has published fiction and nonfiction including papers in education research, a short story about pigs, a first year university Physics textbook, and has a high school textbook in preparation. She also plays the clarinet badly, keeps bees nervously, and is afflicted with twins.