FSU’s DFW rate metric: What I told my Physics Department colleagues

FSU’s Physics Department faculty reacted strongly (and negatively) to the announcement by the university that academic departments and courses would be evaluated in part by the rate at which students earned grades of D or F or withdrew – the so-called “DFW rate”.  The analysis will include separate looks at gender and racial subgroups.  

I wrote to my Physics colleagues about this issue via the faculty e-mail list yesterday.  The e-mail is shown below.  I have added graphics to illustrate the points made in the e-mail.  They were not included in the original e-mail.

It’s worth noting that my department gets along quite well for a university academic department, and it hosts an undergraduate program that was designated to be one of five national models for the J-TUPP report written by a task force convened jointly by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers.  The Studio Physics Program mentioned in the text of the letter was one of the distinguishing characteristics of the department’s undergraduate program cited in the J-TUPP report. 

If you are interested in a researcher’s view of the challenges of running studio-style courses in a research university physics department like ours, you can take a look at this physics education research paper written about a physics department and studio physics program that looks suspiciously like ours.   

Dear Colleagues:

The university’s implementation of a DFW rate metric without acknowledging the importance of disparities in high school preparation is a particular problem for our discipline and department.

While we will have to respond to the DFW metric as a department, we will also each have to make a personal decision about how to respond.

As a state, Florida does a poor job in preparing its high school students for college majors in fields like engineering and physics. The rate at which students in the state’s public high schools take physics is about half the national rate. The rate at which the state’s students take and pass the Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus exams is only at the national average, even though the state offers financial incentives to schools and teachers for AP success that has made the state a national leader in AP social science courses.

And things are getting worse statewide. High school physics enrollments have declined 8% in the last three years, and chemistry enrollments are down by 9% in only the last two years. Last year, there were 31 public high schools of 1,000 or more students that did not offer physics.

AP exam results in Florida show that underrepresentation of women and black students in the engineering and physics pipeline doesn’t begin at the university level – it starts in the K-12 system.

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In Studio PHY 2048C sections, we can see how these statewide trends are impacting our own classrooms through the pre-testing and survey data we take every semester. For the last several years, one-third of the students in my Studio PHY 2048C sections have not had a high school physics class. There are daunting disparities both by race and gender in our pre-testing results.

There is the problem. How do we choose to respond?

I’ve chosen to respond by teaching PHY 2048C and 2049C in the Studio format for the last decade. Physics Education Research results going back 30 years demonstrate that while overall learning gains for all students are higher in such classrooms than they are in traditional lecture classes, studio-style learning environments are particularly important for women and minority students. The secret sauce is the relationships and social interactions among students and between students and faculty that can be fostered in the Studio learning environment.

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Panoramic view of a Studio Physics class at FSU

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A graduate teaching assistant helps a group of students with analysis of data taken during a laboratory exercise in a Studio Physics class at FSU.

I’ve also chosen to respond by engaging K-12 schools in novel ways. Some of you might be aware of my work with the Bay County school district. Three years ago, the district had 100 high school students taking physics – the lowest rate for physics enrollments in the state among non-rural districts. This fall, the district has about 500 students taking physics. One school in particular, Mosley High School, has gone from six (yes, 6) students taking physics three years ago to about 200 this fall.

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A Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony for Bay County middle school students held on FSU’s Panama City campus in November, 2017.  FSU Physics Professor and undergraduate program director Susan Blessing gave the scientific keynote address.

But that sort of outreach work doesn’t always go so smoothly. Last fall, a school board member in Collier County (where Naples is) asked me to provide a comparison of the district’s enrollment rates in chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus with the rates from other districts in the state. The comparison didn’t show Collier in a favorable light. In response, the district’s superintendent said to the school board member who had contacted me, “You can tell Dr. Cottle that our engineering academy students don’t have time in their schedules for calculus and physics.” Shortly afterward, the Florida Department of Education awarded that superintendent the “2017 Data Driven Superintendent of the Year” designation.

There are some obvious “fixes” for whatever problems we are told we have with DFW rates. We can decide not to give any student a grade lower than C- under any circumstances. In PHY 2048C, we can do what our neighbors at the University of Florida do and list high school physics as a prerequisite (no, I don’t think it’s enforceable). But even if we implemented such a prerequisite (and were able to enforce it) it would disproportionately affect the women and minority students we should be working hard to include.

I will not choose either of those options.

Instead, I choose to continue to teach Studio PHY 2048C and 2049C with integrity and invest in those students all of the emotional energy I can muster (and some days it’s not much). I will continue to work with high schools and school districts that are willing to work with me to improve the preparation of their students for engineering and physics majors (and yes, our subject is important for health and computing majors as well).

As much as I am allowed, I will ignore the university’s DFW push because I know (and have tons of research evidence to back that up) I am doing the best thing both for my students in Studio and for the students in the State of Florida that haven’t arrived here yet.

I am grateful to those of you that have joined me in these efforts during the last ten years, and I hope more of you will choose to do so.

Our administration may have decided that the blindly calculated DFW rate is the acid test for our commitment to student learning. My own personal acid test is whether I can look at myself in the mirror and tell myself I’m doing the best I can for our students. I’m going to stick with that.

Paul Cottle

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