How do we teach our physics majors?

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 22, 2008


This post is primarily for college physics teachers.

Hey, if you’re ever presiding over a conference session, here’s a tip for you. If one of your presenters has technical issues, don’t give her a hard time after the talk is over, even in jest, about having gone over time. Trust me. She’s already been beating herself up for it over the last half hour.

So, technical issues aside (and I tried four times to check my presentation on the conference computer prior to the session and was thwarted in some way each time, I swear!), my talk tonight went well. Here’s what I’ve been working on.

In our department, we’ve made a lot of changes to the freshman level courses, adding things like Tutorials and clicker questions and peer instruction that have been shown to improve student learning, because they get students really thinking about the material and engaged (and thus learning) instead of sitting passively and waiting for knowledge to be imparted upon them by the instructor. At the upper-division, however, there’s this sense that we need to stop “coddling” our students with these kinds of techniques, that we learned by lecture, so why shouldn’t they? If they’re not learning, maybe they should consider changing major at this point. But, I argue, that how you learn doesn’t suddenly change between the sophomore and the junior year, and we might do better by our students to try using some techniques that have proven effective at the lower division.

So, in our course we developed

  • Lists of what we concepts and skills we wanted students to learn
  • Homework questions that targeted those concepts and skills
  • A new assessment exam to see if we taught them those concepts and skills
  • New tutorials for teaching those concepts and skills
  • Interactive lecture techniques
  • Clicker questions

We found that when we compared students in a Traditional course to those who took a Transformed course, even though they were similar to one another coming in to the course, at the end of the course those in the Transformed course scored significantly better than those in the Traditional course on common exam questions and a conceptual exam. So, it worked! We can teach our majors better.

We’ve got all those materials on our website for other instructors to use.

And here is the Powerpoint of my talk (PDF) I’ve also got two posters — see the website above for those.

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