The students in my studio physics class posted a world-class normalized learning gain this semester.
So why am I so unhappy with it? And what should I do about it?
My studio physics class posted a normalized learning gain of 43% on the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) this semester. That learning gain, calculated by comparing pre- and post-test scores on the FCI, is about double the typical learning gain that is achieved in a traditional lecture class and is typical for the interactive engagement pedagogy that we use in the Studio Physics Program, according to a seminal large-scale study published by Richard Hake in 1998. My class posted that normalized learning gain despite having an average pre-test score that was low even by American standards (beginning engineering majors in China generally ace the FCI when it is given as a pre-test – but while beginning engineering majors in Ohio and Maryland are far behind Chinese students they are ahead of the students we see here). The FCI normalized learning gain is the number of test questions by which a student improved expressed as a percentage of what they missed on the pre-test. If the pre-test score is particularly low, then even improving by a large number of questions yields a relatively low normalized learning gain.
I am not the only member of the FSU Physics faculty getting good results in Studio Physics. Every colleague who has taught the first-semester calculus-based class and has stayed true to the design of the program – laying down a strong conceptual foundation and then building the mathematical structure on that foundation – has had equivalent (or better) success.
But if you step back from all of that, perhaps you can see why I am so uneasy…or even dissatisfied. Florida State University is now Florida’s public university of choice for undergraduates. Most of the students I see in my classroom were among the cream of the crop in their high schools.
So why are my students learning less than half of what they don’t know at the beginning of the semester? Are there changes I can make in my own classroom to improve student learning even above its present world-class level?
There are adjustments I can make in my own classroom. The lab write-ups we use should probably do more to focus students’ attention on the main principles – like Newton’s 2nd law and conservation of energy – that are in play during the experiments. It’s easy for students to get lost in the minutiae of running experiments, especially when their previous teaching lab experiences have rewarded them for doing so. Perhaps I should tighten up my training meetings for teaching assistants, too.
It would also help if more of my students took physics classes in high school. One-third of the students I have every semester – and they are all majoring in fields like engineering, computer science, meteorology, chemistry and physics – did not take a high school physics class. I am doing what I can as an individual to address that issue. It’s not going well.
Or maybe I should just lighten up. One colleague told me this week that my dissatisfaction with the 43% normalized learning gain proves that I should stop teaching this class and move onto something else. The only other option I would really have is a traditional general education astronomy lecture, and that doesn’t sound very inviting or satisfying.
FSU’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching e-mails a weekly newsletter, and this week’s was titled “Celebrating your Teaching”. I’m in no mood to celebrate, and I know that at least some of my students aren’t celebrating, either. But if I can turn this end-of-semester grumpiness into future improvement, it will all at least have a constructive end.