75 vs. 150

As previously mentioned, a significant component of my new job at UBC this year is curriculum design for a first year cohort that will be taking, among other things, Physics, Calculus and Chemistry, and will have English language instruction somehow embedded into the courses or the support pieces around the courses. These students are mostly prospective Math, Physics and Chemistry majors. An interesting discussion we are having right now relates to class size; specifically class sizes of 75 versus 150.

To me, there are two main possible models for the physics courses in this program:

  1. Run them similar to our other lecture-hall first-year courses, where clickers and worksheets make up a decent portion of the time spent in class. In this case, 75 vs. 150 is mostly the difference in how personal the experience is for the students. Based on my own experience, I feel like 75 students is the maximum number where an instructor putting in the effort will be able to learn all the faces and names. With TAs embedded in the lecture, the personal attention they get in the lecture could be similar when comparing the two sizes, but there is still the difference of the prof specifically knowing who you are.
  2. Rethink the space completely and have a studio or SCALE-UP style of classroom, where students sit around tables in larger groups (9 is common) and can subdivide into smaller groups when the task require it. This would mean that 75 is the only practical choice of the two sizes. This type of setup facilitates transitioning back and forth between “lecture” and lab, but it is not uncommon for “lecture” and lab to have their own scheduled time as is the case in most introductory physics classrooms.

Going with 75 students is going to require additional resources or for program resources to be re-allocated, so the benefits of the smaller size need to clearly outweigh this additional resource cost. My knee-jerk reaction was that 75 is clearly better because smaller class sizes are better (this seems to be the mantra at smaller institutions), but I got over that quickly and am trying to determine specifically what additional benefits can be offered to the students if the class size is 75 instead of 150. But I am also trying to figure out what additional benefits could we bring to the student if we took the resources that would be needed to support class sizes of 75 and moved them somewhere else within the cohort.

What do you think about trying to argue between these two numbers? Have you taught similar sizes and can offer your perspective? I realize that there are so many possible factors, but I would like to hear which things might be important from your perspective.


Help me figure out which article to write

I have had four paper proposals accepted to the journal Physics in Canada, which is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Physicists. I will only be submitting one paper and would love to hear some opinions on which one to write and submit. I will briefly summarize what they are looking for according to the call for papers and then summarize my own proposals.

Note: My understanding is that the tone of these would be similar to articles appearing in the Physics Teacher.

Call for Papers

Call for papers in special issue of Physics in Canada on Physics Educational Research (PER) or on teaching practices:

  • Active learning and interactive teaching (practicals, labatorials, studio teaching, interactive large classes, etc.)
  • Teaching with technology (clickers, online homework, whiteboards, video- analysis, etc)
  • Innovative curricula (in particular, in advanced physics courses)
  • Physics for non-physics majors (life sciences, engineers, physics for non-scientists)
  • Outreach to high schools and community at large

The paper should be 1500 maximum.

My proposals

“Learning before class” or pre-class assignments

  • This article would be a how-to guide on using reading and other types of assignments that get the students to start working with the material before they show up in class (based on some blog posts I previously wrote).

Use of authentic audience in student communication

  • Often, when we ask student to do some sort of written or oral communication, we ask that they target that communication toward a specific imagined audience, but the real audience is usually the grader. In this article I will discuss some different ideas (some I have tried, some I have not) to have student oral and written tasks have authentic audiences; audiences that will be the target audience and actually consume those communication tasks. This follows on some work I did this summer co-facilitating a writing across the curriculum workshop based on John Bean’s Engaging Ideas

Making oral exams less intimidating

Update your bag of teaching practices

  • This would be a summary of (mostly research-informed) instructional techniques that your average university might not be aware of. I would discuss how they could be implemented in small and large courses and include appropriate references for people that wanted to learn more. Techniques I had in mind include pre-class assignments, group quizzes and exams, quiz reflection assignments, using whiteboards in class, and clicker questions beyond one-shot ConcepTests (for example, embedding clicker questions in worked examples).

Your help

And where you come in is to provide me with a bit of feedback as to which article(s) would potentially be of the most interest to an audience of physics instructors that will vary from very traditional to full-on PER folks.

I have a new job at UBC

Dear friends. I am very excited to let you know that at the end of this week I will have officially started my new job as a tenure-track instructor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia.

This is the department from which I received my PhD, so it is sort of like going home. The department has a great nucleus of Physics Education Research researchers, dabblers and enthusiasts, and thanks mostly to the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, there is also a large discipline-based science education research community there as well. I have a lot of wonderful colleagues at UBC and I feel very fortunate to start a job at a new place where it should already feel quite comfortable from the moment I start.

A major portion of my job this coming year is going to be curriculum development for a new first-year international student college (called Vantage). I will be working with folks like myself from physics, chemistry and math, as well as academic English language instructors to put together a curriculum designed to get prepare these students for second-year science courses. I will be teaching sections of the physics courses for Vantage College and bringing my education research skills to bear on assessing its effectiveness as the program evolves over the first few years. Plus I will be teaching all sorts of exciting physics courses in the department of physics and astronomy.

The hardest part about leaving UFV is leaving my very supportive colleagues and leaving all my students that have not yet graduated. Fortunately it will be easy for me to head back for the next couple of years to see them walk across the stage for convocation (and not have to sit on stage cursing that coffee that I drank). 

Stay tuned for some new adventures from the same old guy.

Looking at the number of drafts submitted for project reports in the Advanced Lab

In this post I take a quick look at the number of drafts of their project papers that students submitted in my January 2012 Advanced Lab course. This course had a minimum bar for the paper grades and the students were allowed to revise and resubmit as many times as needed to get there, with an average of 3.22 drafts needed. I decided to look at these numbers for the purpose of communicating realistic expectations to students currently registered for my fall section of the course and thought I would share those numbers.

I am starting to prepare for my fall Advanced Lab course. Here is a quick overview of this course from a previous post:

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!).

In my specific incarnation, we spend the first month doing some introductory activities to build up some foundational skills which are mostly related to data analysis and presentation. For the rest of the course pairs of students work on two month-long experimental physics projects. The students are guided to work on projects that can be viewed as being part of a larger research line, where they build on the work of previous students and future students will build on their work. Thus no two groups will ever perform identical experiments.

A major piece of the course is that they have to write a journal-style article to communicate the results of one of their projects. To help them practice revising their own writing and impress upon them that effective writing requires many revisions, I require that students earn a grade equivalent to a B on their paper according to this rubric, and are allowed to revise and resubmit as many times as needed to reach that threshold grade.

The overall grade for these papers was calculated as 25% from the first graded draft and 75% from the final draft. They were allowed to submit an initial draft, which was not graded, where I would spend a maximum of a half an hour reading over the paper and providing feedback. Students were encouraged to have a peer read through their paper and provide some feedback before submitting this initial draft. After reaching the threshold B-grade, they were allowed to resubmit one final draft. At some point in the revision process I also had a formal process where students provided each other with some peer feedback on their papers.

A quick summary of the numbers are in order. Of the twelve students, three of them gave up at some point before reaching threshold B-grade on the journal-style article. Those students were only given partial credit for the last grade that their paper received. Of the nine students whose papers reached the threshold B-grade, five of them submitted a final draft to improve their overall paper grade.

Of the 9 papers that were accepted (met the minimum grade threshold of a B), 5 of them were revised at least one additional time .

The number of drafts in this graph includes the initial ungraded draft, but does not include the final revision that 5 of 9 students submitted after their papers reached the B-grade threshold.

What is the take-home message here? Based on this system, students should expect to submit three or more drafts of a paper in order to meet the threshold grade.

This coming fall, I plan to adopt some new feedback strategies that  take the focus off grammatical correctness and similar issues in the hopes to focus more on the ideas in the papers. As part of this, I may move to a reviewer report style of feedback (for example, this is the one for AJP) and away from detailed rubrics, but I haven’t quite made up my mind on this yet. My grading philosophy in the course this fall will be that their course grade will represent the quality of the recommendation that I would give them in a reference letter based on their work in the course, and I want to do my best to make sure all of the individual components are assessed in ways that match up with this overall grading philosophy.

Student collision mini-projects from my fall comp-phys course

This past fall I had a revelation which I have yet to harness, but it is hiding out in my brain waiting to be incorporated into future courses. In two of my courses, I had the students work on mini-projects. This was the first time I had used mini-projects in a course and I was delighted with how independent the students were as compared to an overly prescribed task and I was also delighted with the quality of their work as compared to work from the regular prescribed tasks. Later in this post I have shared some videos of the comp-phys mini-projects, but I want to discuss a few things first.

In my digital electronics labs course they were asked to take the input from an analog sensor, apply some electronic decision-making to this input and provide some digital output related to the input. An example is to use a photoresistor to monitor room brightness and use 3 different colours of LED to provide feedback related to the room brightness: a red LED is lit if the room is dark, a yellow LED is lit if the room is of “standard” brightness and a green LED is lit if the room is extremely bright.

In my comp-phys course they were asked to make a collision simulation using Mathematica or Python where there has to be at least 3 different parameters which can be manipulated by the user (e.g., mass, velocity, coefficient of restitution, type of object) and at least one challenging piece of physics in the simulation (e.g., rolling friction, coefficient of restitution which varies between 0 and 1). Examples ideas that I provided included the ballistic pendulum or a 2D collision where you have to worry about the angle of attack.

In both cases, the task was designed to be something which should take approximately one week of the regular time that they are expected to put into the course. In both cases I had some small-in-scope expectations related to the documentation/presentation of the mini-project.  For the digital mini-project, I asked them to submit a complete circuit diagram and a brief video of them walking me through how the mini-project works. For the comp-phys mini-project, I asked for well-documented code and a brief document which highlighted the physics being  simulated and explained how it was implemented in the code.

Before I share the comp-phys mini-projects from the fall, I want to share an “in no particular order” list of things that I liked about the mini-projects above what I would see from a regular prescribed task or series of tasks:

  1. The students seemed much more willing to take on larger challenges with less support.
  2. The students were provided with the opportunity to bring some creativity into their work. There seems to be very few of these opportunities in most physics programs.
  3. The quality of student work was consistently higher than usual and competition played a small role in this. With the comp-phys mini-projects, students would show up to class and see what others had done and decide they had to step up their game by adding more bells and whistles than they had originally intended.
  4. The students had a lot more ownership of the learning task.

I suspect that Andy has seen a lot of these benefits since switching to SBG. A lot of the student submissions for standards that I have seen from his courses seem to involve some creativity and students taking on larger challenges that would normally be expected. The scope of those standards tends to be smaller than the mini-projects I am talking about here, but my experience with mini-projects certainly helps me appreciate even more how powerful SBG can be in terms of giving the students some choice in how they show their proficiency.

Mini-project playlist

Below is a playlist of no-audio videos of the 10 mini-projects from the comp-phys course. Each of them is in the neighborhood of 30 seconds long of me playing around with the various controls and then running the simulation one or two times. Some of them were done by groups. They’re pretty tiny in the embedded player so I would suggest going full-screen.

Reflecting on what I have read so far in John C. Bean’s “Engaging Ideas”

Ugh. I just had one of those moments where I lost a bunch of what I have written. I recovered what I could, but don’t feel like re-writing it all so instead will treat you to a fairly short post.

51dBVhWv0fLMy interest in and engagement with student writing comes mostly from my use of the journal article genre for lab reports in my Advanced Lab course. Through attending a Writing Across the Curriculum workshop last month, I was invited to participate in planning a workshop built around Bean’s book “Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom”. I have been skimming some parts of the book and reading other parts very carefully, and along the way I have been reflecting on the places where the student journal articles intersect with ideas from the book. What is proving to very interesting is the grey area where I can debate with myself (and at some point with others) about places where these intersections might exist, or perhaps should exist.

There is a lot of very practical information in this book. He has chapters on using rubrics, on handling the paper load and on writing comments on students’ papers. I haven’t read those yet, but in reading through some of the earlier chapter, I came across two things that he wrote or referenced that struck a chord with me.

…many teachers read student essays with the primary purpose of finding errors, whereas they read their own colleagues’ drafts-in-progress for ideas


…for many college writers, the freedom of an open-topic research paper is debilitating.

My approach to the student journal articles thus far has mostly been that they are an information dump meant to follow the guidelines of the genre. As you can imagine, this is a vastly different approach from Bean’s approach to student writing. I am interested to see where I will end up after finishing the book and after having a chance to interact more with the colleagues with whom I am planning this workshop (as well as the workshop attendees). Although it is possible that I will continue to feel that the majority of the book does not apply to my situation, the conflicting ideas whirling around in my brain suggest that I will experience a significant shift in how I approach student writing. I originally had a lot more to say about these things, but will leave it at that for now.

Student feedback on having weekly practice quizzes (instead of homework)

This term I eliminated the weekly homework assignment from my calc-based intro physics course and replaced it with a weekly practice quiz (not for marks in any way), meant to help them prepare for their weekly quiz. There’s a post coming discussing why I have done this and how it has worked, but a la Brian or Mylene, I think it can be valuable to post this student feedback.

I asked a couple of clicker questions related to how they use the practice quizzes and how relevant they find the practice quiz questions in preparing them for the real quizzes. I also handed out index cards and asked for extra comments.

Aside from changing from homework assignments to practice quizzes, the structure of my intro course remains largely the same. I get them to do pre-class assignments, we spend most of our class time doing clicker questions and whiteboard activities, and there is a weekly two-stage quiz (individual then group). I have added a single problem (well, closer to an exercise) to each weekly quiz, where in the past I would infrequently ask them to work a problem on a quiz.

Clicker Question 1

L1302081000_Q1 L1302081000_C1


Clicker Question 2

Just from a quick scan of the individual student responses on this one, I saw that the students with the highest quiz averages (so far) tended to answer A or B, where the students with the lower quiz averages tended to answer B or C. I will look at the correlations more closely at a later date, but I find that this is a really interesting piece of insight.



Additional Written Feedback

Most of the time I ask the students for some feedback after the first month and then continue to ask them about various aspects of the course every couple of weeks. In some courses I don’t do such a great job with the frequency.

Usually, for this first round of feedback, the additional comments are dominated by frustration toward the online homework system (I have used Mastering Physics and smartPhysics), requests/demands for me to do more examples in class, and some comments on there being a disconnect between the weekly homework and the weekly quiz. As you can see below, there is none of that this time. The practice quizzes, the inclusion of a problem on each weekly quiz, and perhaps the provided learning goals, seem to do a pretty good job of communicating my expectations to them (and thus minimize their frustration).

Student comments (that were somewhat on topic)

  • I feel like the practice quizzes would be more helpful if I did them more often. I forget that they have been posted so maybe an extra reminder as class ends would help.
  • The wording is kind of confusing then I over think things. I think it’s just me though. Defining the terms and the equations that go with each question help but the quizzes are still really confusing…
  • Curveball questions are important. Memorize concepts not questions. Changes how students approach studying.
  • The group quizzes are awesome for verbalizing processes to others. I like having the opportunity to have “friendly arguments” about question we disagree on
  • I love the way you teach your class Joss! The preclass assignments are sometimes annoying, but they do motivate me to come to class prepared
  • I enjoy this teaching style. I feel like I am actually learning physics, as opposed to just memorizing how to answer a question (which has been the case in the past).
  • I really enjoy the group quiz section. It gets a debate going and makes us really think about the concepts. Therefore making the material stick a lot better.

Last thought: With this kind of student feedback, I like to figure out a couple of things that I can improve or change and bring them back to the class as things I will work on. It looks like I will need to ask them a weekly feedback question which asks them specifically about areas of potential improvement in the course.