I teach introductory college physics, I am a gatekeeper, and that is a good thing

From a recent article on reformed introductory science teaching in the New York Times:

“Employers and government officials have spent years complaining that there are too few people — and especially too few women and blacks — with degrees in math and science.

“In fact, there is no shortage of interested students, but failure rates in the beginning classes are high. At four-year colleges, 28 percent of students set out as math, engineering and science majors, but only 16 percent of bachelor’s degrees are awarded in those fields. The attrition rate is highest among women and blacks.

“‘A lot of science faculty have seen themselves as gatekeepers,’ said Marco Molinaro, an assistant vice provost here at Davis and director of its effort to overhaul science courses. The university has received grants from the Association of American Universities, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Helmsley Charitable Trust.

“Rather than try to help students who falter in introductory classes, he said, ‘they have seen it as their job to weed people out and limit access to upper-level courses.'”

So for instructors of introductory college science courses like me, it is not fashionable to be a gatekeeper.

I’m a gatekeeper, anyway.  And that’s a good thing for everybody.

Here’s what I mean:

My first responsibility as the instructor of a college science course (physics in my case) is to provide the best learning opportunity for students that I can.  I teach in a SCALE-UP learning environment, which for mechanics roughly doubles learning gains over traditional lecture courses.  I’m not there yet in electricity and magnetism, but at least I know where I am because in all of our department’s SCALE-UP courses we pre- and post-test students using well-validated assessment instruments developed by the nation’s leading physics education researchers.

Class Panorama

But once I have marshaled every instructional tool available to me, I have a responsibility to evaluate each student and see if her or his end-of-course understanding of the physics the class was to have learned during the semester is strong enough to justify my certifying to the student’s home department – whether it’s engineering, computer science, chemistry or even physics – that the student is prepared to move on.  Letting a student through the end-of-course gate who has not learned a “C-” worth of physics is a disservice to the student’s home department, the student’s ultimate employer, and – yes – the student.

In my own course, students don’t often receive grades of D or F because they lack sufficient ability to learn the physics.  Nearly always it is a matter of a student who just refuses to focus on learning.  In my own course, we meet for six hours per week, plus a one-hour Friday period intended for the weekly quizzes.  I also hold office hours once a week which are lightly attended at least in part because the SCALE-UP courses are not lecture classes – those six hours in class are generally labs or problem-solving exercises in which students learn by talking among themselves or talking with the instructional staff (which includes me, a few graduate students and usually an undergraduate learning assistant).  Students who don’t come to class generally do not do well, but students who come to class but refuse to engage with their collaborative group partners also tend to perform poorly.

So students do fail my class, and I don’t feel guilty about it.  In fact, I consider gatekeeping to be an important part of my job.

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