Which courses are essential in a Physics degree?

My department’s physics majors degree is very minimally prescribed compared to most places. Our students take the standard Mechanics and E&M in the intro sequence and I am putting my question out there for everything beyond that being up for grabs. Which topics, skills or courses are the ones that you think a student absolutely should have if they are to receive a piece of paper saying that they have a college physics degree.

This is my personal list and it is meant to cover either experimental or theoretical interests so there are no real experimental requirements and the theory is as much as an experimentalist would need.

Must have at least intro textbook level

These are topics that the really thick (“with modern physics”) intro textbooks cover at a sufficiently high level that they prevent the students from having severe gaps in their general physics knowledge. These topics show up in 2nd year courses in most programs if they were not part of the intro sequence.

  • Mechanics (including intermediate topics such as forced and damped oscillation, but these are covered in the thick intro texts)
  • Circuits
  • Geometric and wave optics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Relativity
  • Wave-particle duality
  • Nature of the atom
Update: My opinion is that the standard intro version of E&M (the stuff other than circuits) comes too soon in the curriculum and that it is better to wait until the students have more math under their belt before tackling it. Since it shows up in my upper-year course list, it is still something that I consider essential, just not essential at the intro level.

Must have at least one upper-year course

Every person with a recent physics degree should take at least one upper-year course in these topics or the majority of physicists would consider this person to have severe gaps in their physics knowledge. These are in addition to the very important math topics of vector calculus, and ordinary and partial differential equations.

  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Electricity and Magnetism

It seems crazy that a physicist might not have this course (or skill), but I guess they don’t HAVE TO have it

  • Classical Mechanics
  • Solid state physics
  • Statistical Mechanics
  • Standard Model
  • Skills: computational modeling, experimental design

So my list of must have upper-year courses is only two. It was hard to move stuff like solid state and stat-mech to the “should” from the “must” list, but I did.

What did I miss? What did I put on there that shouldn’t be?

Update September 1, 2011 – Chad Orzel has posted a poll on this very topic using example textbooks to demonstrate the level of the course.

Why I use clickers in small courses

In the comments of my post discussing my doing away with clicker participation points, gasstationwithoutpumps commented:

I understand clickers for large lectures, but I’ve never gotten the point of them in a class of 10. Could you explain why you feel them useful in a class small enough that you can see all the students’ faces and ask them questions personally?

He provided me with a great opportunity to step back and consider my own personal reasons. Here they are. Please keep in mind that I am not trying to convince anybody that these are THE reasons to use clickers in a small classroom or to not use them, but are simply my reasons.

With clickers I feel that I can engage every student

I’m going to quote Stephanie Chasteen (sciencegeekgirl) from one of her posts in her series on clickers in upper-division physics. This is her response to a common argument against using clicker in upper-division courses:

Discussion is easy in small classes, we don’t need clickers. Some instructors do use other methods, such as colored cards, in small classes. The technology itself may not be as crucial, but the teaching method (of asking a question and encouraging students to discuss it with their neighbors) is still incredibly powerful. Plus, students can still “hide” in a class of 10. Or even a class of five. And so can their misconceptions. Students may think that they are following, but until they have to answer a challenging question, they may not be aware of difficulties that they have.

Despite the fact that I can ask all of them questions personally, when I ask one student a question I present the rest of the students the opportunity to “hide”. Just like in larger courses (well larger relative to 10), I want every single student to actually commit to an answer and become vested in the income. Without getting them to commit to an answer I feel that they often won’t fully consider what I am asking them. My analogy is that it is like the difference between having a character with an unfamiliar name in a book and just sort of mentally mumbling it every time you read it, compared to reading it out loud and having to actually commit to how you think that name might be pronounced. Committing to the specific answer with the clicker is like asking a person to try to pronounce that unfamiliar name, they can’t just mentally smudge it anymore. Without the clickers or some low-tech variation, I might be able to engage a few of the students in trying to pronounce the name out loud, and a few others might honestly try to do it without being called on. But like Stephanie says, students can still “hide in a class of 10.

Clickers help me create a safer learning environment for my students

Even in a class of 10, I find that there are usually some students that often do not feel comfortable discussing their understanding with the entire class. The clickers facilitate the argumentation process for these students in a smaller-group situation in which these students feel more comfortable, but are still help accountable for their answers. They help establish a culture where on most questions each student is going to be discussing their understanding with their peers. Clickers are not the only way to accomplish this, but are the way I do it.

Clickers are a very familiar pedagogical technique for me

I would say that my use of clickers falls much more in the “question driven instruction” camp then the “testing for understanding camp” (Ian Beatty talked about this in his AAPT 2011 Summer Meeting talk). And this has become a very familiar way to run a course for me. I am comfortable setting students up to learn the challenging application of a concept or to figure out how to proceed in a derivation through the use of clickers and group work on whiteboards.

Clickers allow me to record student understanding

As both a physics education researcher and somebody that continuously strives to improve my courses, the ability of the clickers to record snapshots of student understanding is invaluable.

So long clicker participation points

I use clickers in all my “lecture”-based courses, with enrollments in these courses ranging from 10-36. I have offered participation marks to students for answering at least a certain percentage of the clicker questions in a given class. At first I was giving out 5% of their total mark, then 2%, and now it looks like I’m doing away with those marks completely.

I have never really liked the idea of giving marks for attendance (even though that is basically what I was doing). I was following the common advice that I had encountered from places such as CWSEI’s Clicker Resource Guide and other folks who have used clickers a lot. And it seemed reasonable to me. My classes are very interactive and there are students that might otherwise try to zone out or not show up, and I always try my best to help the bottom quartile succeed. But this sort of practice raises all sort of issues with external motivators. Of course I give tons of marks to students for doing their pre-class reading/screencast viewing assignments so I am not above giving participation marks to students for doing things which I think will help them learn.

When giving clicker participation marks I have always allowed students 3-4 free days that they can miss or not participate, and not be penalized. But I always end up with a few students that want exceptions above and beyond these free days. Doing away with the clicker participation points also does away with this hassle.

The last thing that it accomplishes is that I hope it will reduce guessing on clicker questions. With the clicker questions not being worth any marks, I can ask students not to randomly guess and only answer a question if they have some reason to believe the answer they are choosing. Back in January Peter Newbury talked about how, due to student guessing, you can overestimate how many people actually got a given clicker question correct. Without the participation points, students can feel that they won’t be penalized for not answering a question, which I hope will reduce the guessing effect. Of course another way to get at the guessing effect is to, every so often, ask them a clicker question about how confident they were in their answer, and to have “Randomly guessed” be one of the options.

I have enough data to know what sort of participation level to expect in my own courses with the clicker participation marks being dangled in front of the students. So I will be able to compare the participation level between using clicker participation marks and not after the fact. Of course these numbers will be convoluted with my slowly improving ability to generate student buy-in, but I will at worst be able to tell if participation went down.

So long clicker participation points, I hope I never feel the need to use you again.

More than Make-Work Writing in my Advanced Lab Course

I teach the Advanced Physics Laboratory course in my department. This type of course, a standard course in most physics departments, is a standalone lab course without any associated lecture course. There is an amazing amount of variability from one Advanced Lab course to the next and they range in format from one experiment per week with everything already set up and cookbook procedures ready to be followed, to a single student-developed project over the entire term (or year!).

Often communication is emphasized in these courses, with the probably the most common forms of dissemination being formal lab reports modeled after journal articles and oral presentations.

I started to prepare in May for my 2nd time teaching this course and it’s not running until January 2012. I had tweaked the writing tasks that I was going to assign to the students when I came across the following paper:

Inquiry-Based Writing in the Laboratory Course, Cary Moskovitz and David Kellogg, Science Vol. 332 no. 6032 pp. 919-920 (May 2011). DOI: 10.1126/science.1200353

This paper ended up helping me further develop effective student writing tasks by making sure I was giving the students a tangible audience and by cutting out some portions of these writing tasks which were probably more make-work than anything.

Feel free to contact me if you need help finding a copy of this paper.

Paper Summary

I’m not certain I understand what exactly “inquiry-based writing” is (blame how poorly define inquiry-based anything is), but I am taking points discussed in Moskovitz and Kellog’s paper as a guide to giving students productive/effective writing tasks in the lab. This is in contrast to assigning to the students the standard lab reports which the authors describe as “largely inauthentic and make-work affairs, involving little actual communication beyond the implicit argument for a good grade.”

My rough summary (filtered through my own interests) of their main three points for designing effective writing tasks in the lab are:

  1. Assign forms (genres) of writing that working scientists use, such as journal articles, experimental reports, proposals, peer reviews, and conference posters.
  2. Ensure that students have something meaningful to say. It’s OK for the writing task to include only certain parts of a given genre. For example, if the students didn’t design or modify the procedures, how are they supposed to see writing up a methods section as meaningful?
  3. Create a real communication scenario by providing them with a tangible audience for their written work. This does not mean asking them to imagine addressing scientists in their field, but instead providing them with a real audience that will have interest in their work.

In the context of my course, I have taken these three points and used them to inform all the communication tasks in the lab, not just written tasks. But in this post I will focus on the written tasks.

Summary of my course

The primary characteristics of my Advanced Lab course are

  1. The term is divided roughly into thirds. The first third of the course is dedicated to developing skills[1]critical to (or at least useful for) the Advanced Lab through shorter experimental tasks. Each student spends the remainder of the term working in series on two research projects including mostly written dissemination of their results.
  2. Model the course after a physics research group with the students taking on the role of apprentice scientists (co-op students, graduate students, etc.) and me taking on the role of research supervisor. The entire class is treated as a larger research group and there are weekly group meetings (see this earlier post of mine for more of my thoughts on running a course in a way similar to how a research group functions).
  3. Each student research project is part of a larger ongoing research line. Future projects build upon previous projects instead of repeatedly replicating what previous students have done year after year.

I must tip my hat to Martin Madsen at Wabash College from whom I borrowed/ stole/ adopted characteristics 2 and 3. His course webpage can be found here and some of the research lines that he offers have seen three or more projects on the same line.

The experimental equipment that I use for each of the research lines typically have multiple well-defined experimental tasks, but also have plenty of room for students to explore some “intellectual phase-space” with novel experimental tasks being possible and plenty of freedom for future projects to build upon previous ones.

Connecting the dots between this paper and my course

My real communication scenario makes future students the tangible audience – The major light bulb that went on in my head thanks to this paper was the realization there was a lack of tangible audience in the student task of writing a journal article for the vague blob of “scientists in their field” or even for a local faux “journal of advanced lab.” In my experience, the journal article (typically in the style of American Journal of Physics) is one of the most common forms of formal writing that Advanced Lab instructors ask of their students, but with very very very few students actually publishing these papers to journals the audience is vague and intangible. Here is where Martin Madsen’s wonderful idea of research lines lends a great big hand to this communication scenario. Instead of the journal articles being written for these intangible audiences, the research line structure makes it so that the tangible audience for each project group is the future groups of students that will be working on their research line. For future students to build on the previous experimental work in a specific research line, they will necessarily have to use the journal articles written by previous students. Authentic audience = [✓].

Before coming across this paper, my plan was to have each student write a journal article for one of their experiments and a popular-science-level article (e.g., New Scientist or Scientific American) for the other. Students are partnered up, so for a given experiment one partner would write the journal article and the other the popular science article. What I really liked about this idea was that I thought that the popular science article would force them to focus on the big picture idea of why their results are interesting without getting so bogged down in the gory experimental and analysis details one would see in a journal article. I also thought it would allow the students to write drastically different papers based on the same shared experimental and background research experiences. Unfortunately, I do not have a target “tangible audience” for these popular-science-level articles.

My new primary writing tasks are a technical note and and a wiki entry – Even with a now-tangible audience (future students), the journal article as a writing task is not completely authentic for my students. Once an initial group in a research line has written introduction and theory sections, future groups will simply be parroting that work. Keep in mind that the introduction section in a typical journal article is usually a brief overview of the field for the purposes of motivating that specific published work. Perhaps a new group would extend the theory and motivation a bit because of the specific way that their project goes beyond the original project in that experimental line, but they would still be mostly re-writing the previous work done for these sections by the original group.

The technical note – So let’s just strip that type of introduction and theory section right out of the journal article and re-frame the journal article as a technical (or tech) note. My personal concept of a technical note comes from my time as a particle physics Ph.D. student where our collaboration had written a hundred or so technical notes. Most of these tech notes were written for the purpose of disseminating to the rest of the collaboration (including future collaborators) the experimental results of a study, analysis, measurement or something similar. In these “experimental” tech notes there was no need to rehash the motivation or theory for the collaboration’s full experiment since that was already common knowledge shared within the collaboration. A brief introduction/motivation was still needed for the particular experimental task being discussed in the tech note. But for the most part, an equation was introduced in the form it was going to be needed without worrying too much about the underlying physics needed to get to that equation. Sweet! Stripping the traditional introduction and theory out saves my students the task of doing something which feels like make work once a previous group has already done it.

Another point that Moskovitz and Kellog make is that the students often don’t have the perspective, time or expertise to write up the introduction (background) as you would see it in a typical journal article. It is simply too large of a task for them to tackle properly.

The wiki entry – Here’s a question you may be asking yourself: “Is anybody ever going to write up the theory and background for a given research line?” The answer is yes and it will be in the form of a wiki entry. I have a wiki set up for this course and the second major writing task each student will do is create or greatly contribute to a wiki entry for their experimental line. One student in a group will work on the tech note while the other student works on the wiki entry.

The purpose of the main wiki page for a given experimental line is two-fold. First, it is meant to be a place that a curious student can go to read about the experimental line in sufficient detail to determine if a project in that line would interest them, and with enough detail provided that they could develop a decent picture of their potential experimental tasks and the underlying physics. The second purpose is to have a living document which represents the current and collective understanding of the theory, background and experimental equipment of those students who have collaborated on a given research line. This is a collaborative document for which each participating student can take great personal ownership.

I want to try to keep the idea of writing to a sort of popular-science article level for the wiki and am going to get the students to write their wiki entries with the assumption that the reader has only our introductory physics courses under their belt. Our majors program has very little in terms of required courses so it is never safe to assume that a given student will have a certain class under their belt when they walk into the Advanced Lab. With curious students being one of the target audiences, the writing needs to be very understandable and anything being discussed needs to start from fairly basic/common principles.

The writing task will be to contribute a certain number of words to the research line’s wiki entry(ies). I haven’t nailed it down yet, but I’m thinking of something in the neighbourhood of 1000-1500 words. A student would be asked to contribute something meaningful and complete to the wiki. I might suggest to the first student that he/she write an overview of the theory and background. And then based on the conceptual difficulties that I find that group having in the weekly group meetings, I could suggest that a future student flesh out the section(s) related to those conceptual difficulties.

Final thoughts

I really like how this paper helped me tweak my already planned writing tasks for my advanced lab course. With future students being an audience that will actually have to use the written dissemination of previous students to help them build on that work, I feel like I have identified a very tangible audience for students in this course. And by re-framing the journal article as a technical note and moving background and theory to the wiki, I have managed to make sure that the students always have something new and relevant to say.

I’m really not certain how the wiki entries will evolve, but I will get lots of feedback from the students to try to help me refine and improve the wiki writing task to make it feel as productive to them as possible.


  1. These skills include a re-introduction to statistics, error analysis and curve fitting; an introduction to LabVIEW programming; and learning how to use LaTeX.

Walking the interactive classroom walk right out of the gate

Executive summary: This year I’m going to get my intro mechanics students to make motion diagrams and we are going to play “match the graph” games with motion detectors on the first day of class. This is going to happen instead of me spending the whole class period telling them how the course is going to work and then actually starting in with an interactive classroom on day 2. How novel!

First day of classes = kind of awkward

One thing that has bugged me about my courses over the past couple of years is that my first class ends up being a mostly administrative/logistical introduction to the course, with lots of salesmanship and my regular level of being silly on top. I spend most of the time that day talking and there is a huge disconnect since what I’m talking about is all the ways that they are going to learn that don’t involve me talking. Yuck!

Part of why I do it this way is because I am a big advocate of pre-class assignments/some sort of flipping of my classroom (using reading assignments, screencasts or other multimedia). I have touched on these things before (here and here). In terms of consistency, it seems inappropriate to stomp around telling them that I want them to ALWAYS come to class prepared to build on the concepts from their pre-class assignments, and then start trying to teach them Section 1.1 on the first day outside of my regular flipped framework.

But in terms of an interactive classroom, day 1 is me talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

My new plan is to jump right in

But this morning I decided I’m going to change it up this year. I’m going to introduce myself, tell them that I (heart) the interactive classroom and jump right into something fun and learningful (I’m allowed to make up these types of words).

I think they think the students are supposed to show up already having a physical feel for motion

Most introductory physics textbooks jump into 1D motion right away, perhaps with a preceding chapter on units, vectors and other physics-support stuff. But what they don’t do is try to spend some time helping the students develop a feel for motion. Perhaps students can quickly go from from an x-t graph to a v-t graph, but have they developed a physical sense of what sort of motion something is undergoing if they see a parabolic v-t graph? Knight does a decent job of some of this. He spends time on making motion diagrams (the picture that you be created if the moving object dropped a breadcrumb once per second, similar to a strobe image). But it is ultimately up to the students to develop a physics sense of these motion quantities and how they interact with each other, and most textbooks don’t even try set the students up to do this; they just treat this physical sense as developed from the get-go. By the way, I am using smartPhysics as my text this year (as I discuss here) and their text is no different in this way.

It is interesting that, under my new plan, it is almost better that the textbook doesn’t try to help the students develop this physical sense of motion. That means that I can jump right into some “developing a physical sense of motion” activities on day 1 without undermining my usual structure of doing some learning from the text before class and then coming to class to refine and build on that learning. Thanks textbooks.

The actual jump right in activities I am mulling over

Motion diagrams – The first thing I am going to do is to walk across the front of the room at constant velocity, saying “now”, once per second and ask them to whiteboad a picture that represents where I was each time I said now. Then through some combination of whiteboarding, clicker questions and me running around at the front rhythmically shouting “now” we explore what the motion diagrams look like if I am speeding up, slowing down, going in one direction vs. the other or just standing still. In the middle of all of this I can introduce the idea that velocity can be represented by an arrow drawn from one dot on the motion diagram to the next. Perhaps Dan Meyer’s WCYDWT basketball shot will make an appearance.

Games with motion detectors – This is super fun and a great way to help students develop a physical feel for all the motion quantities and how they are related. Put them in front of a motion detector and give them an x-t, v-t or a-t graph and ask them to move their bodies to reproduce that graph. Through this process they get to relate their own physical motion to all three graphs and how they are related. Note that I have never actually done this in my own classes, but have done it as a participant at a workshop and loved it!

These would be tough for a student to reproduce by running around in front of a motion detector. They are from throwing a basketball up in the air and then catching it again.

Generating buy-in by walking the walk

I believe that generating student buy-in is the single most important factor in running a successful interactive classroom. And jumping them right into whiteboarding and learningful clicker questions (instead of starting with “what is your major” clicker questions) seems like it can only help to generate buy-in.

Since I usually spend an entire class period talking to them about the course structure, there must still be a bunch of stuff that I need to communicate to them early in the course, if not on day one. And this is very true. I’m just not going to front load it. What I am now planning on the first day is not going to show up on their first homework assignment (partially true, they probably will have to translate between x-t, v-t and a-t graphs), so I can wait until the second day to talk about homework. Their first quiz isn’t until day 5 so I’m sure I can wait until day 3 to talk about that. I’m going to embrace the 5-minute maximum that screencast.com has imposed on the world and not talk, for more than 5 minutes at a time, about anything related to course logistics.

A last note

Just in case you think it is ridiculous that I seem so handcuffed to and by my textbook I want to state my position. If I am using a specific textbook for a course, I like to try to follow its sequencing and notation/conventions as much as possible. If I am going to ask them to try to do some initial learning out of the textbook, I don’t want to make their lives more difficult by making them jump ahead 4 chapters to a place where they vaguely mention ideas that came up in the 4 chapters that we jumped over, and then jump back 3 chapters to cover the stuff that we skipped later. Same thing goes for the notation and conventions: if they are going to see something written in their book umpteen times while trying to make first contact with an idea, I don’t want to further add to their cognitive load by completely switching up the notation and conventions.

A second last note

This post was supposed to be short. I have no idea what my problem is.

Resources for selling and running an (inter)active intro physics class

This post is in response to Chad Orzel’s recent post about moving toward a more active classroom. He plans to get the students to read the textbook before coming to class, and then minimize lecture in class in favour of “in-class discussion/ problem solving/ questions/ etc.” At the end of the post he puts out a call for resources, which is where this post comes in.

There are three main things I want to discuss in this post, and (other than some links to specific clicker resources) they are all relevant to Chad or anybody else considering moving toward a more active classroom.

  1. Salesmanship is key. You need to generate buy-in from the students so that they truly believe that the reason you are doing all of this is so that they will learn more.
  2. When implementing any sort of “learn before class” strategy, you need to step back and decide what you realistically expect them to be able to learn  from reading the textbook or watching the multimedia pres
  3. The easiest first step toward a more (inter)active classroom is the appropriate use of clickers or some reasonable low-tech substitute.


KNA, a commenter on Chad’s post writes:
I also realized early on in my career that salesmanship is key. I need to explain why I want them to do the reading, and the 3 JiTT (ed. JiTT = Just-in-Time-Teaching) questions, and the homework problems sets, etc. My taking some time periodically to explain why it is all in their best interest (citing the PER studies, or showing them the correlation between homework done and exam grades), seems to help a lot with the end of term evals.

And I completely agree. I changed a lot of little things between my first and second year of teaching intro physics, but the thing that seemed to matter the most is that I managed to generate much more buy-in from the students the second year that I taught. Once they understood and believed that all the “crazy” stuff I was doing was for their benefit and was backed up by research, they followed me down all the different paths that I took them. My student evals, for basically the same course, went up significantly (0.75ish on a 5-point scale) between the first and second years.

A resource that I will point out for helping to generate student buy-in was put together for Peer Instruction (in Computer Science), but much of what is in there is applicable beyond Peer Instruction to the interactive classroom in general. Beth Simon (Lecturer at UCSD and former CWSEI STLF) made two screencasts to show/discuss how she generates student buy-in:

Reading assignments and other “learning before class” assignments

This seems to be a topic that I have posted about many times and for which I have had many conversations. I will briefly summarize my thoughts here, while pointing interested readers to some relevant posts and conversations.

When implementing “read the text before class” or any other type of “learn before class” assignments, you have to establish what exactly you want the students to get out of these assignments. My purpose for these types of assignments is to get them familiar with the terminology and lowest-level concepts, anything beyond that is what I want to work on in class. With that purpose in mind, not every single paragraph or section of a given chapter is relevant for my students to read before coming to class. I refer to this as “textbook overhead” and Mylene discussed this as part of a great post on student preparation for class.

I have tried reading quizzes at the beginning of class and found that it was too hard to pitch them at the exact right level that most of the students that did the reading would get them and that most of the students that didn’t do the reading wouldn’t get them.

Last year I used a modified version of the reading assignment portion of Jitt (this list was originally posted here):

  1. Assign reading
  2. Give them 3 questions. These questions are either directly from the JiTT book (I like their estimation questions) or are easy clicker questions pulled from my collection. For the clicker questions I ask them explain their reasoning in addition to simply answering the question.
  3. Get them to submit via web-form or email
  4. I respond to everybody’s submissions for each question to try to help clear up any mistakes in their thinking. I use a healthy dose of copy and paste after the first few and can make it through 30ish submissions in just over an hour.
  5. Give them some sort of credit for each question in which they made an effortful response whether they were correct or incorrect.

I was very happy with how this worked out. I think it really helped that I always responded to each and every one of their answers, even if it was nothing more than “great explanation” for a correct answer. I generated enough buy-in to have an average completion rate of 78% on these assignments over the term in my Mechanics course last time I taught it. I typically weight these assignments at 8-10% of their final grade so they have pretty strong (external) incentive for them to do them.

As I mentioned previously, my current thinking is that I want the initial presentation (reading or screencast) that the students encounter to be one that gets them familiar with terminology and low-level or core concepts. As Mylene says “It’s crazy to expect a single book to be both a reference for the pro and an introduction for the novice.” So that leaves me in a position where I need to generate my own “first-contact” reading materials or screencasts that best suit my needs and this is something that I am going to try out in my 3rd-year Quantum Mechanics course this fall.

It turns out that for intro physics there is an option which will save me this work. I am using smartPhysics this year (disclaimer: the publisher is providing the text and online access completely free to my students for the purposes of evaluation). To explain what smartPhysics is, I will pseudo-quote from something I previously wrote:

For those teaching intro physics that are more interested in screencasting/pre-class multimedia video presentations instead of pre-class reading assignments, you might wish to take a look at SmartPhysics. It’s a package developed by the PER group at UIUC that consists of online homework, online pre-class multimedia presentations and a shorter than usual textbook (read: cheaper than usual) because there are no end-of-chapter questions in the book, and the book’s presentation is geared more toward being a student reference since the multi-media presentations take care of the the “first time encountering a topic” level of exposition. My understanding is that they paid great attention to Mayer’s research on minimizing cognitive load during multimedia presentations. I will be using SmartPhysics for my first time this coming fall and will certainly write a post about my experience once I’m up and running.

Since writing that I have realized that the text from the textbook is more or less the transcript of the multimedia presentations so in a way this textbook actually is a reference for the pro and an introduction for the novice. They get into more challenging applications of concepts in their interactive examples which are part of the online homework assignments. For example, they don’t even mention objects landing at a different height than the launch height in the projectile motion portion of the textbook, but have an interactive example to look at this extension of projectile motion.

The thing with smartPhysics is that their checkpoint assignments are basically the same as the pre-class assignments I have been using so it should be a pretty seamless transition for me from that perspective. I still haven’t figured out how easy it is to give students direct feedback on their checkpoint assignment questions in smartPhysics, and remember that I consider that to be an important part of the student buy-in that I have managed to generate in the past.

(edit: the following discussion regarding reflective writing was added Aug 11) Another option for getting students to read the text before coming to class is reflective writing, which is promoted in Physics by Calvin Kalman (Concordia).  From “Enhancing Students’ Conceptual Understanding by Engaging Science Text with Reflective Writing as a Hermeneutical Circle“, CS Kalman, Science & Education, 2010:

For each section of the textbook that a student reads, they are supposed to first read the extract very carefully trying to zero in on what they don‘t understand, and all points that they would like to be clarified during the class using underlining, highlighting and/or summarizing the textual extract. They are then told to freewrite on the extract. “Write about what it means.” Try and find out exactly what you don‘t know, and try to understand through your writing the material you don‘t know.

This writing itself is not marked since the students are doing the writing for the purposes of their own understanding. But this writing can be marked for being complete.

Clicker questions and other (inter)active physics classroom resources

Chad doesn’t mention anywhere in his post that he is thinking of using clickers, but I highly recommend using them or a suitable low-tech substitute for promoting an (inter)active class.  I use a modified version of Mazur’s Peer Instruction and have blogged about my specific use of clickers in my class in the past. Many folks have implemented vanilla or modified peer instruction with cards and had great success.

Clicker question resources: My two favourite resources for intro physics clicker questions are:

I quite like the questions that Mazur includes in his book but find that they are too challenging for my students without appropriate scaffolding in the form of intermediate clicker questions which can be found in both the resources I list above.

Clicker-based examples: Chad expressed frustration that “when I do an example on the board, then ask them to do a similar problem themselves, they doodle aimlessly and say they don’t have any idea what to do.” To deal with this very issue, I have a continuum that I call clicker-based examples and will discuss the two most extreme cases that I use, but you can mash them together to produce anything in between:

  • The easier-for-students case is that, when doing an example or derivation, I do most of the work but get THEM to make the important mental jumps. For a typical example, I will identify 2-4 points in the example that would cause them some grief if they tried to do the example completely on their own. When I work this example at the board (or on my tablet) I will work through the example as usual, but when I get to one of the “grief” points I will pose a clicker question. These clicker questions might be things like “which free-body diagram is correct?”, “which of the following terms cancel?” or “which reasoning allowed me to go from step 3 to step 4?”
  • The other end of the spectrum is that I give them a harder question and still identify the “grief” points. But I instead get them to do all the work in small groups on whiteboards. I then help them through the question by posing the clicker questions at the appropriate times as they work through the problems. Sometimes I put all the clicker questions up at the beginning so they have an idea of the roadmap of working through the problem.

An excellent resource for questions to use in this way is Randy Knight’s 5 Easy Lessons, which is a supercharged instructor’s guide to his calculus-based intro book. The first time I used a lot of these questions I found that the students often threw their hands up in the air in confusion. So I would wander around the room (36 students) and note the points at which the students were stuck and generate on-the-fly clicker questions. The next year I was able to take advantage of those questions I had generated the previous year and then had all the “grief” points mapped out and the clicker questions prepared for my clicker-based examples.

Group Quizzes

Not related to clicker questions, but they are related to the (inter)active class: group quizzes are something that I have previously posted about and I have also presented a poster on the topic. I give the students a weekly quiz that they write individually first, and then after they have all been handed in they re-write the quiz in groups. Check out the post that I linked to if you want to learn more about exactly how I implement these as well as the pros and cons. Know that they are my single favourite thing that happens in my class due to it being the most animated I get to see the students being while discussing the application of physics concepts. It is loud and wonderful and I am trying to figure out how to show that there is a quantifiable learning benefit.