I finally got to meet my students from the international college

Last week was a historic time for us at Vantage College (the International first-year transfer College that gets 2/3 to 3/4 of my time depending on how you count it or perhaps who you ask). Our very first students evar arrived. For the past week, they have been participating in a 1500ish-student orientation program for international and aboriginal students on campus. I have been the faculty fellow for a group of 20ish students, and in addition to our scheduled activities, I have been going out of my way to join them for lunch (which sometimes involves taking selfies with the students). 

As a quick reminder, Vantage is one-year residential college at UBC for international students that had incoming English scores a bit too low for direct entry. I am teaching our enriched physics course to these students and all of the courses in the college have additional language support in addition to the regular course support. Those that are successful in the program will be able to transfer into their second year of various programs and complete potentially complete their degree in four years. Although I am regular right-before-the-term-starts busy, I want to quickly reflect on things…

  • Although it wasn’t obvious to me at first, one of the reasons I am really excited about this is that it is a cohort-based program, where our science courses max out at 75 seats. I am really looking forward to building relationships with the students over this time and then hopefully getting to see them continue on to be amazingly successful UBC students.
  • Our teaching team and support staff might just be the most fantastically talented group of people on campus from a per-capita-awesomeness standpoint. And we (the physics team) have been poaching some of the best TAs in our department to work with us. Our leadership team is supportive, just as excited as the rest of us and seem to manage that magical combination of having both the students’ and instructors’ best interests in mind.  
  • The average level of conversational English of the students I have met so far has been much higher than I was expecting. The conversations may be slow and involve some repetition, but I have been able to have lots of genuine conversations.
  • The students are excited! We’re excited!
  • It has been really fun discovering how many cultural references and touchstones I take for granted. I was with a group of students when a Star Wars reference (our computer science department has a wing called “x-wing”) came up. Not that I was expecting them to get the reference, but I said something to the effect of “haha, x-wing, that’s a thing from Star Wars” and then realized that most of them didn’t even know what Star Wars was.
  • Designing a program from scratch has been a great experience. In the end our Physics courses are frighteningly similar to what my small first year courses looked like at UFV, but we got there through a lot of discussions, weighing options, etc

So meeting the students has turned all of this abstract planning quite real and what used to be the future into the present. I am so delighted to have met so many of the students with whom I’m going to spend the next 10 months. 

AAPTSM14/PERC2014: Measuring the Learning from Two-Stage Collaborative Group Exams

In an attempt to get back into semi-regular blogging, I am setting aside my pile have half-written posts and am going to share the work that I presented at the 2014 AAPT Summer Meeting and PERC 2014.

  • Poster (link)
  • PERC paper (link to first submission on arXiv)

The quick and dirty version is that I was able to run a study, looking at the effectiveness of group exams, in a three-section course which enrolled nearly 800 students. The image below summarizes the study design, which was repeated for each of the two midterms.


The study design...

(First row) The students all take/sit/write their exams individually. (Second row) After all the individual exams have been collected, they self-organize into collaborative groups of 3-4. There were three different versions of the group exam (conditions A, B and C), each having a different subset of the questions from the individual exam. It was designed so that, for each question (1-6), 1/3 of the groups would not see that question on their group exam (control) and the other 2/3rds would (treatment). (Bottom row) They were retested on the end-of-term diagnostic using questions which matched, in terms of application of concept, the original 6 questions from the midterm. 

Results: As previously mentioned, I went through this cycle for each of the two midterms. For midterm 2, which took place only 1-2 weeks prior to the end-of-term diagnostic, students that saw a given question on their group exam outperformed those that did not on the matched questions from the end-of-term diagnostic. Huzzah! However, for the end-of-term diagnostic questions matched with the midterm 1 questions, which took place 6-7 weeks prior to the end-of-term diagnostic, there were no statistically significant differences between those that saw the matched questions on their group exams vs. not. The most likely explanation is that the learning from both control and treatment decays over time, thus so does the difference between these groups. After 1-2 weeks, there is still a statistically significant difference, but after 6-7 weeks there is not. It could also be differences in the questions associated with midterm 1 vs midterm 2. For some of the questions, it is possible that the concepts were not well separated enough within the questions so group exam discussions may have helped them improve their learning of concepts for questions that weren’t on their particular group exam. I hope to address these possibilities in a study this upcoming academic year.


Will I abandon this pedagogy? Nope. The group exams may not provide a measurable learning effect which lasts all the way to the end of the term for early topics, but I am more than fine with that. There is a short-term learning effect and the affective benefits of the group exams are extremely important:

  • One of the big ones is that these group exams are effectively Peer Instruction in an exam situation. Since we use Peer Instruction in this course, this means that the assessment and the lecture generate buy-in for each other.
  • There are a number of affective benefits, such as increased motivation to study, increased enjoyment of the class, and lower failure rates, which have been shown in previous studies (see arXiv link to my PERC paper for more on this). Despite my study design, which had the students encountering different subsets of the original question on their group exams, all students participated in the same intervention from the perspective of the affective benefits.


I had some great conversations with old friends, new friends and colleagues. I hope to expand on some of the above based on these conversations and feedback from the referees on the PERC paper, but that will be for another post.