FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - The Physics Illumination Project: Conceptual Homework on the Web

Fall 2001



Previous Newsletters

Current Issue

Contact the Editor

The Physics Illumination Project: Conceptual Homework on the Web

Ron Greene

Physics Illuminations consist of a simple interactive component (such as a Java applet) packaged with brief descriptive text. Most are qualitative in nature and naturally incorporate student assessments, so that they work well as automatically graded conceptual homework. Their positive impact upon learning has been demonstrated by the fact that over 100 students in three different classes employing no in-class interactive engagement methods showed conceptual learning comparable to that of the interactive engagement classes reported by Hake.1-2 (Further tests with other instructors are currently underway with the support.)

In-class active learning methods have been widely studied and are generally believed by physics education reformers to substantially improve student understanding of basic physics concepts. However, because of the extensive attention that has been paid to in-class methods, it is unlikely that substantial further improvement can be made on that front (other than convincing more instructors to use an interactive approach). By contrast, comparatively little attention has been paid to what can be done with homework to improve student conceptual learning. For typical students, learning through out-of-class study is probably only weakly correlated with learning through interactive in-class techniques; consequently, the combination of effective homework with interactive engagement methods may help us further improve student learning in introductory physics.

Listed below are a number of my conclusions about what is needed for effective web-based homework, based on my experience with Physics Illuminations. (Some of these items have been previously discovered by others in the context of in-class learning studies.)

  • Most students will use on-line learning materials only if such use directly affects their grade. Giving them evidence that students who voluntarily use the materials score higher on quizzes or exams is not a sufficient inducement.
  • An applet should be accompanied by text to accommodate less explorative learning styles. However, such text should be very brief for students to take the time to read it.
  • The opportunity to score well on homework encourages a high rate of participation, and consequently more learning. This is one of several arguments for relatively simple, single-focus learning items.
  • Applets that focus on a single topic and limit the number of variable parameters are more likely to be effective. Most students are overwhelmed by an applet that gives them control over many variables, since they have not internalized the scientific approach of studying the effect of one variable at a time.
  • Approaching a concept from different directions (with different applets) helps solidify the learning of that concept.
  • Students can learn effectively through repetition. Applets that present students an "unlimited" number of random cases are particularly suitable for computer-aided learning.
  • It is not necessary to show students what they did wrong if the software can give multiple random cases of simple tasks. Students will read the accompanying text (if it is brief) to find out what they need to do or what they might be doing wrong. Of course, immediate feedback is essential, but that is a given in computer-assisted learning.
  • For complicated tasks, such as problem solving, and tasks where few cases are available, context-sensitive feedback is likely to be necessary. This is a much more difficult research and programming problem, requiring substantial understanding of learning (by both human and machine). Thus, it is important to break such tasks into simple subtasks to whatever extent is possible.

Improving student learning of physics through the use of more effective homework is still a relatively unexplored area. If you are interested in getting involved in this exploration, check out the open source Physics Illumination Project (www.uno.edu/~rgreene/pip.cfm). I welcome participation by non-programmers as well as programmers.

Partial support for this project is provided by the National Science Foundation's Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement Program under grant DUE-0088695.

  1. Ronald L. Greene, "lluminating Physics via Web-Based Self-Study," Phys. Teach. 39, 356-360 (Sep. 2001).
  2. Richard R. Hake, "Interactive Engagement versus Traditional Methods: A Six-Thousand-Student Survey of Mechanics Test Data for Introductory Physics Courses," Am. J. Phys. 66, 64-74 (1998).

Ron Greene is a Professor of Physics at the University of New Orleans. During his career he has had varied research interests, among them plasma spectroscopy, semiconductor physics, and machine learning. This last area has evolved into studies in computer-assisted instruction.