Student opinions on what contributes to their learning in my intro E&M course

We are a couple of weeks away from our one and only term test in my intro calc-based electricity and magnetism course. This test comes in the second last week of the course and I pitch it to them as practicing for the final. This term test is worth 10-20% of their final grade and the final exam 30-40% of their final grade and these relative weights are meant to maximize the individual student’s grade.

Today I asked them how they feel the major course components are contributing to their learning:

How much do you feel that the following course component has contributed to your learning so far in this course?

This is a bit vague, but I told them to vote according to what contributes to their understanding of the physics in this course. It doesn’t necessarily mean what makes them feel the most prepared for the term test, but if that is how they wanted to interpret it, that would be just fine.

For each component that I discuss below, I will briefly discuss how it fits into the overall course. And you should have a sense of how the whole course works by the end.

The smartphysics pre-class assignments

The pre-class assignments are the engine that allow my course structure to work they way I want it to and I have been writing about them a lot lately (see my most recent post in a longer series). My specific implementation is detailed under ‘Reading assignments and other “learning before class” assignments’ in this post. The quick and dirty explanation is that, before coming to class, my students watch multimedia prelectures that have embedded conceptual multiple-choice questions. Afterward they answer 2-4 additional conceptual multiple-choice questions where they are asked to explain the reasoning behind each of their choices. They earn marks based on putting in an honest effort to explain their reasoning as opposed to choosing the correct answer. Then they show up to class ready to build on what they learned in the pre-class assignment.

The smartphysics online homework

The homework assignments are a combination of “Interactive Examples” and multi-part end-of-chapter-style problems.

The Interactive Examples tend to be fairly long and challenging problems where the online homework system takes the student through multiple steps of qualitative and quantitative analysis to arrive at the final answer. Some students seem to like these questions and others find them frustrating because they managed to figure out 90% of the problem on their own but are forced to step through all the intermediate guiding questions to get to the bit that is giving them trouble.

The multi-part end-of-chapter-style problems require, in theory, conceptual understanding to solve. In practice, I find that a lot of the students simply number mash until the correct answer comes out the other end, and then they don’t bother to step back and try to make sure that they understand why that particular number mashing combination gave them the correct answer. The default for the system (which is the way that I have left it) is that they can have as many tries as they like for each question and are never penalized as long as they find the correct answer. This seems to have really encouraged the mindless number mashing.

This is why their response regarding the learning value of the homework really surprised me. A sufficient number of them have admitted that they usually number mash, so I would have expected them not to place so much learning value on the homework.

Studying for quizzes and other review outside of class time

Group quizzes

I have an older post that discusses these in detail, but I will summarize here. Every Friday we have a quiz. They write the quiz individually, hand it in, and then re-write the same quiz in groups. They receive instant feedback on their group quiz answers thanks to IF-AT multiple-choice scratch-and-win sheets and receive partial marks based on how many tries it took them to find the correct answer. Marks are awarded 75% for the individual portion and 25% for the group portion OR 100% for the individual portion if that would give them the better mark.

The questions are usually conceptual and often test the exact same conceptual step needed for them to get a correct answer on one of the homework questions (but not always with the same cover story). There are usually a lot of ranking tasks, which the students do not seem to like, but I do.

Quiz Corrections

I have an older post that discusses these in detail, but I will again summarize here. For the quiz correction assignments they are asked, for each question, to diagnose what went wrong and then to generalize their new understanding of the physics involved. If they complete these assignments in the way I have asked, they earn back half of the marks they lost (e.g. a 60% quiz grade becomes 80%).

I am delighted to see that 42% of them find that these have a large contribution to their learning. The quizzes are worth 20% of their final grade, so I would have guessed that their perceived learning value would get lost in the quest for points.

In-class stuff

I am a full-on interactive engagement guy. I use clickers, in the question-driven instruction paradigm, as the driving force behind what happens during class time. Instead of working examples at the board, I either (A) use clicker questions to step the students through the example so that they are considering for themselves each of the important steps instead of me just showing them or (B) get them to work through examples in groups on whiteboards. Although I aspire to have the students report out there solutions in a future version of the course (“board meeting”), what I usually do when they work through the example on their whiteboards is wait until the majority of the groups are mostly done and then work through the example at the board with lots of their input, often generating clicker questions as we go.

The take home messages

Groups quizzes rule! The students like them. I like them. The research tells us they are effective. Everybody wins. And they only take up approximately 10 minutes each week.

I need to step it up in terms of the perceived learning value of what we do in class. That 2/3rds number is somewhere between an accurate estimate and a small overestimate of the fraction of the students in class that at any moment are actively engaged with the task at hand. This class is 50% larger than my usual intro courses (54 students in this case) and I have been doing a much poorer job than usual of circulating and engaging individual students or groups during clicker questions and whiteboarding sessions. The other 1/3 of the students are a mix of students surfing/working on stuff for other classes (which I decided was something I was not going to fight in a course this size) and students that have adopted the “wait for him to tell us the answer” mentality. Peter Newbury talked about  these students in a recent post. I have lots of things in mind to improve both their perception and the actual learning value of what is happening in class. I will sit down and create a coherent plan of attack for the next round of courses.

I’m sure there are lots of other take home messages that I can pluck out of these data, but I will take make victory (group quizzes) and my needs improvement (working on the in class stuff) and look forward to continuing to work on course improvement.

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5 Comments on “Student opinions on what contributes to their learning in my intro E&M course”

  1. Bret Benesh says:

    Hi Joss,

    First, thanks for writing a post that includes actual data. I wish I did that more.

    Second, I might switch to your group quizzes for the last half of the semester. Your evidence is compelling (at the very least, students THINK it helps them).
    Bret

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Bret,

      Beyond the students thinking that it helps them, I have definitely found evidence of student learning during the group quiz. See Page 13 of a poster I made last year: http://goo.gl/yP55Y

      But it has been much more of a challenge coming up with some evidence for longer term learning. There are a lot of confounding factors and I am not going to give up some of the things which I believe contribute to student learning for the sake of reducing confounding variables. Before the end of the term I will try asking some clicker questions immediately after the group quiz, which are isomorphic to those on the quiz.

      As always, thanks for dropping by to comment :)

  2. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    This is great, Joss. I ask similar questions at the end of the year to help for future classes, but getting this data when you can still make some adjustments is really cool. Will you take class time to discuss these results?

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hi Andy,

      Yeah, I like to take some class time to go over things like this. It’s a good opportunity for students with extreme opinions to see where the average student is at. And if there are any adjustments that I will be making based on the feedback I let them know.

      I also provided them with index cards for additional feedback. And I follow up on that as well.

  3. […] communities, of professors and teachers applying such a strategy and having tremendously positive results and feedback; however, two-stage exams have still not found much footing across multiple disciplines inside the […]


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