FEd Fall 2002 Newsletter - Letters

Fall 2002



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Why the textbook Physics: Principles and Problems by Zitzewitz et al, has become the most widely used high school physics text

In a recent communication with the AIP Statistical Research Center Mark McFarling stated that the most commonly used high school physics textbook is Physics: Principles and Problems by Zitzewitz et al. Although the preliminary analysis is not complete, the text is used in about one-half of the regular introductory algebra-trigonometry physics course. This course is by far the most common course offered in high school physics. Current dominance of the high school market by the Zitzewitz et al text at is about the same as it was in 1997 and some years before. Conceptual Physics by Hewett dominates physics for non-science students, a lesser used high school course (1).

Modern Physics, the most widely used text for many years, had various authors but has now gone out of print. Over the last twenty years Physics Principles and Problems (originally by Murphy and Smoot) had steadily gained acceptance by the high school physics teaching community and had in 1987 a 33 percent share of the market to a present 50 percent share, while Modern Physics declined from almost universal acceptance by high school physics teachers to an at present 20 percent share of the market . Both texts were rated high quality by physics teachers (2).

The reason that most teachers shifted from the old standby Modern Physics to the Murphy and Smoot (now authored by Zitzewitz et al) was that the former text did not properly address the main problem that young students in high school have with their physics course--problem solving. Earlier editions of Modern Physics had some direct relevant examples of how to solve the problems at the end of each section (3), but the newer editions, especially starting in the cold war era, erroneously relied upon so-called "thinking" through the problems in the text by the student and solving them using pure thought and relevant cues in the text (4). This is what made physics "hard." The hard part of physics is in the problem solving for most students.

The Zitzewitz format has made it so that high school physics is finally "user friendly." Prior to its introduction the physics teacher had to make up six to eight problems based on the same concept such as I = V/R solving for I, R and V so that learning would take place. This has made the standard mathematical high school course not only "student friendly," but also teacher friendly (5). I have also found that many inner city students, who often were sold out by giving them the qualitative course such as "Conceptual Physics" were certainly capable of using the Zitzewitz and doing the mathematical course with calculators (6).

Certainly, the publishers of the Zitzewitz Physics: Principles and Problems has provided the high school physics teachers with a student and teacher friendly high school physics text which is of good quality. It will enable all students to successfully traverse mathematical physics and should be held as a model for the publishers of even college texts. Physics teachers of all types, high school, undergraduate and graduate, need this type of text where plenty of examples on how to do the physics problems at the end of the chapter. The format for all physics course texts should be modeled on the Zitzewitz format of single concept, examples, and drills and practices for reinforcement of each concept. That is why this text has become the

most widely used high school physics text--because it is user friendly.


1.Michael Neuschatz and Mark McFarling, "Maintaining Momentum: High School Physics for a New Millennium," AIP report number R-427 (1999) p 4-5.

2. Ibid.

3.H.Clark Metcalfe et al, Modern Physics, Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, (1960).

4. John E Williams etal, Modern Physics, Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston (1976).

5. Stewart E Brekke, "Mathematical Physics For All, First or Last, is Realistic," APS Forum on Education Newsletter, Spring 2002.

Stewart E. Brekke, Bensenville, IL, sbrekk@cs.com