I teach one of those courses that the New York Times referred to recently as “weed-out” courses.
I teach the two-semester introductory calculus-based physics sequence that is required for students majoring in engineering, meteorology, computer science, chemistry and (of course) physics, and which is sometimes taken by biology majors who could have taken the (presumably less rigorous) algebra-based course instead.
I would be thrilled if I could give every student who takes my course an “A”. But colleagues in my university and those living in the larger world rely on my grade to tell them how much physics my students understand. And so far, during my 34 years of teaching college physics, I haven’t been in a situation in which every student understood enough physics at the end of a semester to justify a grade of “A”.
Why don’t all of my students get to the level of physics understanding that justifies a grade of “A”? There are, of course, many contributing factors. Some can be laid at my feet, and some are the responsibility of my students. Students learn physics with understanding by doing physics – by making measurements and interpreting those measurements using the laws of nature, and by “solving” complex problems involving the laws of nature. Almost every student learns more effectively when participating in those activities in active collaboration with other students.
That’s why I led an effort fifteen years ago that culminated in the implementation of the SCALE-UP model for introductory calculus-based physics classes at FSU in 2008. These courses, which we call the Studio Physics Program, now serve about 400 students each semester. The SCALE-UP model was developed at North Carolina State University and has been adopted at more than 150 institutions, according to the SCALE-UP creator’s web site. The institutions that have adopted the SCALE-UP model include the University of Minnesota, Virginia Tech and (wait for it) MIT. The model emphasizes small group collaborative learning (the usual small group size is three students) and the development of social networks among students. That is, SCALE-UP already does what is called for by Princeton University social psychologist Kate Turetsky in the New York Times article: “teachers and lecturers should redesign their courses to help people maintain relationships and strengthen social networks, perhaps through more collaboration, cooperation, group work and less competition”.
Being banished from our usual studio science classrooms to cyberspace has hobbled the Studio Physics Program – by now all of us teaching “studio” physics classes online are painfully aware of the shortcomings of Zoom breakout rooms. But we will likely be back in our SCALE-UP classrooms next year. And I will bring back to my physical classroom some of the tools I worked on for this year’s online classes, perhaps making my face-to-face classes a little more effective.
But for all of this, the student learning we see in Studio Physics falls short of what we would like. Those of us teaching Studio Physics regularly show university administrators how student learning gains measured using assessment instruments developed by physics education researchers (I am not a physics education researcher – I just adopt the tools of the researchers) dramatically exceed those measured in traditional lecture classes. But on the Force Concept Inventory, the gold standard for concept inventories, students in the Studio Physics Program learn on the average only about 40-50% of what they didn’t know at the beginning of the semester. That is a world-class learning gain and is much better than the gains typical of traditional lecture classes, which average about 20%. But it falls far short of the ideal learning gain of 100%.
Why are our learning gains falling short of 100%? Surely there are strategies we as educators can learn and implement to improve the effectiveness of the course. Perhaps some of the tools we’ve adopted during our online experience this year will help. And we know that some students, through no fault of their own, experience problems making the social connections in the class that are necessary for an optimum learning experience. Women are in the minority in my class – typically one-third of my students are women. I generally only have a few Black students in a 60-student class. In the face-to-face learning environment, we invest effort in monitoring the interactions those students have with other students and intervene by moving students among groups when we think that might help. That monitoring has been much more difficult in the online environment, of course.
Nevertheless, students come to us at the beginning of the semester with different levels of physics understanding, different beliefs about how they learn and how they should be taught, and different challenges in their lives outside the physics classroom. During “normal” (non-COVID) semesters, we pretest students extensively using assessment instruments developed by physics education researchers, both to evaluate our own teaching (by comparing the pretest results with posttest results) and to provide us with data we can use to build the best possible collaborative learning groups. The pretest results reveal an enormous range of learning from high school physics classes that students took. A few have a significant head start on the concepts we work on during the semester. More are clustered near lower levels of physics understanding. And typically one-third of the class hasn’t taken a high school physics class at all – a situation that was rapidly getting worse in Florida even before the pandemic.
Students beliefs about learning science are also a big problem in my Studio Physics classroom. About one-third of my students arrive in my classroom on the first day of the fall semester understanding that you learn science by doing science, as we do in my classroom. But the rest have experienced mostly didactic science classrooms in which memorization is valued over developing understanding. At the beginning of the semester, these students find my course puzzling or even threatening. Maybe half of those students buy into the studio model as the semester proceeds, but some never do. The ones who never buy in do not learn well, and their course grades reflect that.
There are also students who would buy in to the collaborative learning model but who are unable for various reasons to connect well with the other students in their small collaborative learning groups. Sometimes – I hope most times in our face-to-face classrooms – we can see that problem occurring. We can move such a student to another group where she or he can thrive. But sometimes this strategy does not work – we can’t coax a student into engaging with other students. That situation almost never ends well.
The values affirmation exercise featured in this week’s New York Times article as a way of coaxing students into engaging with their classmates is not new. Researchers from the University of Colorado published results on the use of values affirmation exercises in college science classes in 2010. The idea is to tell students that we care about them as human beings and not just as test scores, and it works. I haven’t used that strategy, although we could. Instead, we try to use our interactions with students in the studio physics classroom to communicate the message that we care about them as human beings. Nevertheless, even those efforts fail with some students. For those students, the Studio Physics classroom looks like just another “weed-out class”, despite our best efforts.