Freshman physics is a requirement for nearly 1,500 students per quarter, but for many, the lecture portion becomes a revolving door of discouragement and even failure. Hundreds must retake the class, clogging enrollment for others waiting their turn.
Steve McCauley, chair of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, and his faculty team are determined to change that pattern, thanks to funding from the Graduation Initiative aimed at enriching courses in which a significant number of students earn less than a C in their first attempt.
The key to improving freshman physics, McCauley believes, is the development of a regularly scheduled one-unit recitation course to accompany the lecture and lab on a regular basis. Such courses are typically more relaxed and emphasize learning concepts over earning grades. Students work in small groups or one on one with instructors or learning assistants, using Physics Education Research-based tutorials that address common difficulties in learning introductory material. The department has offered such classes previously, McCauley says, but always as an elective advertised via postings and flyers ¿ and subject to elimination during tough budget times.
The Graduation Initiative funding is allowing McCauley and his colleagues to go beyond class surveys and anecdotal evidence and instead deeply study the issue. ¿We have an opportunity to look at what we¿ve done and what others have done and to rethink our methods,¿ McCauley says. ¿The Graduation Initiative is giving us a chance to pause and look around. This is a long-term investment.¿
Assistant Professor Homeyra Sadaghiani, who is directing the recitation instructions, has implemented the learning assistant model, which lowers the student-to-instructor ratio and increases student engagement. Sadaghiani sees ¿a strong synergy¿ from the recitation classes and learning assistant program.
Teaching the recitation classes is creating a growing passion among learning assistants to share their knowledge for the long term. ¿We have five students in the pipeline who want to teach high school physics,¿ she says.
Sadaghiani is also leading the data analysis, and she says the preliminary findings look promising. Based on student feedback, the classes are effective. A survey showed that more than 90 percent of students in recitations would recommend the course to a friend; 80 percent have indicated recitations have been helpful in their conceptual understanding of physics; and 75 percent believe recitation has helped their problem-solving skills.
¿I really love physics, and it frustrates me that so many students develop a negative image of the subject,¿ McCauley says. ¿Our work on recitation classes is a step in changing that image.¿
The Graduation Initiative committee is seeking a second round of requests for proposals (RFPs) from other departments interested in enriching classes. Information and specifications are listed on the group¿s website.
(Photo: Svetlana Stouklova, right, works with students in her Physics 131 recitation class Feb. 23.)