Structuring a topic: Waves

This flow-chart applies the most effective teaching methods to the way a topic can be more successfully taught.This page illustrates how the principles set out in Applying the methods can be used to teach the topic "Waves". A more detailed Scheme of Work is under construction.

Skills of the learner


  • "That's a really good question?"
  • "I'm impressed with the work you did here."
  • "You got an A in the last topic: how did you manage to improve so much?"
  • "Ellen's done a brilliant job here - is anyone's better then this?"

Independent learning skills

  • Photocopy a page from the textbook. In pairs they highlight and delete sections and then write a summary.
  • Follow up lack of equipment, deadlines, homework etc and give praise to those who succeed.
  • Take a short section of the topic. Set some questions which requires them to learn for themselves from the textbook.
  • Set "find out" homework.

Connect with prior knowledge.

What do we have to learn this for?

  • What causes a tsunami?
  • How can we kill a cancer tumour inside the body?

What do they already know?

Water waves, sound waves, people waving, tsunami, Mexican. Illustrate with pictures or video clips.

Concept map, advance organiser.

Create an overview/plan, perhaps as a mind-map to show the whole topic.

Use graphics, animations and video.

Use diagrams, demonstrations, animations and video to show: movement of particles as the wave advances; difference between a line as "ray" and a line as "wave-front"; slowing down as the cause of refraction.

Build knowledge step-by-step

Use ordinary language first, then introduce technical term or symbol.

  • In this type of wave the particles go side to side. We call this "transverse".
  • When the waves spread out like this, it is called “diffraction”.

Use a logical sequence

  • Water waves.
  • Energy in waves
  • Sound…ultrasound
  • Earthquake waves
  • Light…reflection… refraction
  • E-M.
  • Ionisation

Building “understanding”.

Use examples which are familiar/observable.

  • "When we shake the rope up and down, do you see the wave move along?"
  • "If I move the magnet back and forth, do you see how the metal moves with it? That could be called a “magnetic wave” "


All these 7 types fit together: we call it the E-M spectrum.
Which waves are ionising?

Teach the theory

  • Ozone molecules absorb UV light because they have electrons which vibrate at the same frequency as the UV waves.
  • Water absorbs microwaves because the frequency is the vibration frequency of the H-O bond.

Use similes and analogies

  • Transverse waves are like “Mexican waves” the wave travels round the stadium, but each person just stands up and down.
  • The movement of longitudinal waves are like a line of people in a queue: the one at the back pushes the one in front, who pushes the one in front of that….etc etc

Secure learning with spaced rehearsal.

The brain is designed to forget most things which it experiences only once. Long term memories can only be secured by at least 3 spaced repetitions.
Review the learning at the beginning of the next lesson; set short homeworks which simply practise what has just been done; set short tests etc. Card-sorting exercises appear simple, but cannot be done without thinking through the question and are therefore very effective. Hot Potatoes ‘Drag & Drop’ can be done online.

Provide feedback

Feedback is a checking process which helps prevent wrong memories forming. It can take many forms: marking, formative marking, commenting, questioning, self and peer assessment all provide feedback to the learner.

Link to current affairs/society and environment.

  • Have a look at this picture. Why do you think that some buildings have collapsed while others are still standing? Is it chance?
  • Radio-active waste will give off gamma rays for 10,000 years. Is this a reasonable risk?

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