20. Ways to teach… Displacement, Velocity and Acceleration

The second “Ways to Teach” episode where we channel tips from our wonderfully generous contributors.  Teachers of Physics are heroes as we never tire of saying, and they have been so generous with their time, sharing a wealth of wisdom on helping students get to grips with displacement, velocity and acceleration.  


  • Vacuum cannon back in stock (and new t-shirts) @ 01:38
  • General advice on teaching displacement, velocity and acceleration @ 2:56
  • Measuring real things in the real World @ 07:56
  • Using an ultrasound displacement sensor @ 22:15
  • Data on real things in the real World/ worksheets @ 23:57
  • Maps and treasure hunts @ 25:18
  • Simulations @ 31:01
  • Videos @ 34:50
  • Plenary Yoga @ 36:05


Thomas announces that there is a new t-shirt design and the vacuum cannon is back in stock. Thomas and Robin chat about the suggestions sent in by Physic teachers on how they teach displacement, velocity and acceleration. After a few tips they break the suggestions down in to:

Blue toy car
Not constant velocity car, but close enough
  • Measuring Real Things in the Real World: toy cars, woodlice, the teacher, the students…
  • Live graphs with an ultrasonic position sensor
  • Using data from the real World. e.g. The Usain Bolt vs Stephen Hawking PowerPoint.
  • Simulations and sensors: Simulations such as echalk.co.uk, the PhET moving man and the Universe and More are all useful. PhyPhox is a really useful app for exposing the sensors on your phone.
  • Maps and Treasure Hunts: google maps allows you to measure distances if you right click.
  • Videos: e.g. the ISS video below
  • Yoga.

Here are some more details:

  • Use x for position and Δx for displacement instead of d and s which are confusing (thanks @PhysGal)
  • USE GRAPHS A LOT!! – thanks to Paul Reynolds, Imogen, Matt Harding and others – all graphs tell a story (chocolate versus happiness etc), Dan Twomey leaves the numbers out of it until later so that the shape of the graph is discussed first 
  • Explicit teaching of “per” “÷” and “/” all being the same – Tom Norris star of episode 19 and don’t use formula triangles – controversial – may be a last resort for kids as they approach their exam. 
  • Most popular – measuring real things in the real world – constant-velocity cars, woodlice, students on the athletics track all help students to relate real-world motion to the graph story.  There are loads of good descriptions in the podcast and I guarantee you’ll hear something new to try (thanks Molly Ann, Dan Hannard and Brian Lane).
  • John Hamilton told us about falling cupcakes (here’s an A-level practical that uses cupcake cases): simple, cheap and reliable.   What’s not to love? 
  • Thomas’s friend Sylvia joined us to describe the human ticker timer and how it helps students to understand how a ticker timer works. 
  • Cara, Mr Holliday, Paul Reynolds and one of Robin’s lovely former colleagues (thanks James!) all talked about live graphs with motion sensors – the software that comes with the sensor will help to get your students acting out motion and so thinking carefully about what story the graphs are telling.  Really popular with the students this one! 
  • Tom recommended some analysis of car chases and 100m races on video, while @e=mc2andallthat has a tongue-in-cheek PowerPoint that details a race between Usain Bolt and Stephen Hawking.
  • Fabio di Salvo introduced the idea of using a real map (and don’t forget Google Maps could be a good homework here!) to compare ‘crow flies’ displacement to ‘path taken’ distance travelled. 
  • Nigel from Essex joined us to talk about using superhero The Flash in his lesson to get  students thinking about and measuring their speed and thus saving the Academy from a bomb attack.
  • Dan Toomey shared the PhET simulation “The Moving Man” as a way for students to see a graph plotted in real time.  Thomas liked it but thought Bernard Rand’s suggestion “TheUniverseandMore.com” was really special with a graphing challenge
  • Robin’s favourite are the apps that access the internal sensors in mobile phones such as https://phyphox.org/ and Google Journal, that will measure acceleration and allow students to analyse their motion (for example on the bus to school) and tell the story of the motion. 
  • Don’t forget videos!  Thomas and Robin loved one shared by Ruben Calverd showing acceleration in the ISS (you can watch it below if you are on the web site) – thanks Ruben!  Please remember to share any nice videos on @physicsTP 
  • Paul Reynolds wrapped things up with a description of “graph yoga”  A great bit of fun as a plenary… Namaste, Paul! 

Fancy hearing something on a future “Ways to teach…”?  Just let us know via the usual channels!  Thanks for listening. 

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