To the Editor:
In his editorial in the Spring
1995 issue of the Forum newsletter, Stan Jones has downplayed one of
the most important issues we face in physics education -- whether our
students are willing to work hard on physics. I have been involved
in a study of teaching and learning physics in the algebra-based physics
courses (which are populated mostly by life science majors) at Florida
State University for several years. This study has produced several
publications and a Master's thesis for a student in FSU's Science Education
program. In our efforts to identify obstacles to learning and implement
reforms, I and my collaborators in teaching and studying students have
repeatedly run up against the limits of the willingness of most of
our students to work on physics outside of class. We find this alarming
since our science forms the foundation of much of the modern understanding
of biology and allows an understanding of some of the most important
tools in the life sciences.
In one stage of our study , G.E. Hart, a science education graduate
student, met with six students in our first semester algebra-based
physics class each week for two hours during the fall 1993 semester.
The sessions were held three days before the course's weekly quizzes.
The six students, who had volunteered to be members of Hart's group,
had deficiencies in their academic backgrounds that indicated increased
risk of failure in the course. Hart sold the weekly sessions to the
six students as "help sessions", but allowed the students to decide
how the sessions could best be used. After several weeks, the students
settled on a cooperative learning arrangement in which group discussions
on particular homework problems were led by members of the group who
had seriously attempted (or successfully completed) the problems. The
readers of this letter will immediately recognize this as the ideal
study pattern: a cooperative learning situation in which the participants
have prepared in advance for a useful discussion.
However, Hart ran into a situation he had not anticipated. Among
this group of students who had voluntarily joined this study group,
preparation prior to the study session was inconsistent, even after
the students had become convinced that early preparation helped their
performances on the weekly quizzes, which fell three days after the
study sessions. One member of Hart's group wrote in her journal, "Every
single quiz that I took where I started my problems [before the study
session with Hart] I got an 18 or higher [out of 20 possible points]." Nevertheless,
Hart noted in his thesis that this student was unprepared for about
75% of the study sessions, and he mentioned that she was often distracted
by extracurricular activities. His experiences with the other five
students in the group were not much different.
The success of the Hart group was significant despite the inconsistency
of effort outside class periods, so we looked for a practical way to
implement the small group situation for the entire class during the
second semester of the sequence in spring 1994. We decided to use recitation
periods for this purpose. During the first semester of the course in
fall 1993, the recitations had been conducted in the traditional manner;
that is, professors spent the time presenting solutions to homework
problems on the blackboard and answering questions posed by a few of
the more outgoing students. During the recitations for the second semester
course in spring 1994, the classes broke up into groups of four to
six students, and each small group worked together on three or four
problems during the 50 minute recitation period. The students received
a small amount of credit (5% of the total course grade) for this work.
During the recitations, the supervising professor circulated around
the classroom answering questions.
About 120 students took both the first semester of the course in
fall 1993 with the traditional recitation format and the second semester
in spring 1994 with the small group exercise format. We had these students
complete a survey in which they were asked to compare their classroom
experiences and out-of-class study habits during the two semesters.
Student reaction to the new recitation format was generally positive
. The faculty members working on this new recitation format had
hoped that students' out- of-class study habits would improve for two
reasons. First, it was thought that students would become comfortable
working with groups on problem-solving, and it seemed possible that
more students would work on homework problems with groups outside class.
Second, many students had been in the habit of attempting the homework
problems for the first time the night before the weekly quiz (which
was held on Monday). With the new format, it was hoped that students
would attempt their homework problems before the recitation (held on
Friday) so that they would be better prepared for both the group exercises
in recitation and the quiz.
However, the new recitation format during the second semester had
no significant impact on students' out-of-class study habits. When
students were asked on the survey whether they "regularly" studied
with a group outside class during the first semester, 35% said yes.
When asked the same question about the second semester, only 28% responded
yes. The fraction of students who said they attempted "most or all
of the homework problems" before the recitation on Friday was about
the same for the first semester (33%) and the second semester (36%).
This implied that most students were taking their first serious look
at the week's material during the recitation period, no matter which
recitation format was used. We found these results deeply disappointing,
since they seemed to place limits on what we could accomplish with
practical course reforms.
It seems likely that the small group exercises in the new recitations
provided the most productive hour of studying physics most students
had in a week. From conversations with many students, I have concluded
that most students devote less than three hours per week to physics
outside class, and that much of this time is spent unproductively in
rote memorization of equations and examples.
We can respond to this situation in several ways. First, we can shrink
our expectations of student achievement to fit the disappointing study
habits of our students. I am afraid this happens all to often. Second,
we can concern ourselves only with the 35% of students who are demonstrating
commitment to the subject by beginning their work early and organizing
group study sessions outside class. This is certainly a distasteful
alternative, but I believe it is preferable to the first.
There may be a third alternative that addresses students' reluctance
to work on physics outside class periods: We could expand the small
group recitation periods to four scheduled hours per week, and award
substantial credit (perhaps 20% of the final grade) for the work done
in these sessions. If the high attendance rates we experienced for
the 50 minute group work sessions (about 85%) carried over to the longer
periods, nearly all the students in the class would be studying in
the optimal way four hours per week, a huge improvement over the present
There are several significant obstacles to this latter approach.
First, some faculty members believe that part of a college student's
training is to learn to study in a disciplined way outside class, and
that by "replacing" the need for out-of-class study time we would be
hindering a student's broader intellectual growth. This is an important
question that deserves serious consideration. Second, it might be expensive
to staff the increased class periods properly, although discontinuing
lectures (which seem to me to be of little use) and formal requirements
for out-of-class faculty "office hours" would free up some faculty
time. The third obstacle would perhaps be the most serious for the
algebra-based class, which is generally populated by students in the
life sciences. These students often have several lab-based courses
each semester and spend ten or more hours per week in labs alone. Scheduling
two additional two hour blocks per week for physics problem-solving
sessions might be difficult.
There are certainly other constructive ways to address the out-of-class
study problem. But denying that it is important, as Stan Jones seems
to do, does not help. We need to seriously debate the role of physics
in the curricula of non-physics majors, as well as the interaction
of teaching methods with students' personal responsibility and initiative.
If we ignore these issues, we will be abdicating our responsibilities
to our students and the entire higher education community.
Paul D. Cottle
 G.E. Hart, M.S. thesis, Florida State University, 1995.
 P.D. Cottle and S.E. Lunsford, Phys. Teach. 33, 23 (1995).
Stan Jones responds