Physics Class With No Tests, No Lectures

How would you do in a class that didn’t have any tests or lectures?

Beginning in Fall 2014 at UCF, two physics classes will attempt to answer that question. Instead of listening to long lectures and taking multiple exams and quizzes, students will read the material at home and have their understanding improved via class discussions and exercises. Working in teams, students will have the responsibility to produce three projects using the information they’ve read about and discussed. No information source is off limits (except for some specific classroom activities) and “cheating” can’t happen because there are no tests to cheat on!

From the beginning of his teaching career with UCF, Dr. Jeffrey Bindell of the Physics department, was frustrated by his student’s poor examination grades, spotty attendance, and high withdrawal rates. His colleagues suggested he not worry because Physics classes usually have these problems. Still, Dr. Bindell and some of his colleagues felt there had to be a better way to reach his students.

One reason students have difficulty with physics courses is they often postpone reading the material and studying to just a few days before tests. Their retention of the information is consequently short lived. An entire field, called Physics Education Research (PER), has been developing over the past few decades to understand how best to teach physics to students . PER seeks to apply best practices or even explore new methods for teaching the subject. Dr. Bindell believes the UCF physics department is lucky to have Dr. Jacquelyn Chini, a well-trained PER expert, on its faculty. Dr. Chini has been advising and actively contributing to the introduction of this new mode of instruction from a pedagogical (meaning the art or science of teaching, education, and instructional methods)  perspective.

Over the past few years, Dr. Bindell has been introducing a PER based SCALE-UP program for his physics courses. While the program has improved attendance, produced higher grades, and was overall better received than straight lecturing, there were still significant problems with creating tests, students using the internet to get the answers to homework assignments, etc.

Enter Dr. Eric Mazur, of Harvard University, who had previously developed the Peer Instruction method of teaching. Last semester, he came to UCF and gave a set of talks on his method of delivery, which eliminates test and lecturing, leaving class time for the students to engage in real learning activities. Drs. Bindell and Chini were excited about the potential of this method and asked Dr. Mazur if it could work at UCF. With Dr. Mazur’s confidence that it could be done, and a promise to assist in establishing a program at UCF, Dr. Bindell moved forward to plan the first physics delivery using this method in Florida and the second in the nation. (The University of Michigan has used it in a different course with great success.)

Critical to this approach is the strong support from the department’s chair, Dr. Talat Rahman, who has consistently advocated PER based instruction. She has also been supportive of many experimental introductions of new methods of instruction by the physics faculty. Dean Michael Johnson has strongly supported such ventures as well.

In the peer instruction approach, homework is assigned to be done at home using a specific procedure. There are no standard problems. The homework is done alone and brought into class where students discuss the work with their team and then students modify their work (by notation on the originals). The homework is graded based on a rubric, which does not require a correct solution, but does require a correct approach. No reference material is forbidden on the homework. Students can use whatever materials are available to solve the homework problems, as long as they don’t talk to other students for the portions that they are supposed to do alone. Because students can later correct their work, cheating has no value.

Reading Assignments involve reading the text in electronic form and then highlighting significant passages of the text which is monitored by a program “NB,” developed at MIT. It provides the instructor with a composite of what the class has underlined and picks up the issues considered most important or confusing by the majority of students. When something is highlighted as a question, all of the class can see the question and can answer. Long conversions can occur. Quick, random highlighting is easily spotted. The reading can be graded.

Learning Catalytics is a clicker-like program also developed by Dr. Mazur and purchased by Pearson. Significant questions, based upon the NB results, are answered individually by the students. Afterward, students are allowed to discuss their answers with their team and answer the questions again. There is a rubric for grading these answers.

Projects form the most important part of the course. A large amount of class time is allowed for these projects to be completed. All groups are assigned the same project, but must adapt it to their group’s specific ideas. For instance, an engineering materials class at the University of Michigan taught using Dr. Mazur’s method, had a project where students had to pick a superhero and figure out what materials their “super suit” were made out of. Grading of the projects is done at a Project Fair by outside instructors. The format is up to the students.

Because the Peer-Instruction method focuses on application of information instead of memorization, students are more likely to retain what they learn and be able to think critically about it. This method also introduces students to the collaborative, professional environment they’ll be entering once they get a job.

The College of Sciences is looking forward to seeing what results this experiment will bring. We hope for much success.

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