Engaging Faculty in the Teaching/Learning Process

Stan Jones

Much has been written about the importance of engaging students in their own learning process. Active and collaborative learning techniques that engage students have been shown to significantly improve student learning. But what about the faculty: are they fully engaged with the students’ learning process? In particular, how committed are the faculty to the health and vitality of the introductory courses offered by their department? In the process of helping my department to implement active learning strategies in introductory physics, I have found an unexpected side-effect: the faculty themselves become engaged. The result is substantially more faculty involvement in curriculum development, laboratory improvement, and general concern for the introductory courses.

Prior to our implementation of course reform, it was generally the case that faculty had little awareness of the lab content, and made little effort to incorporate the labs in their teaching. I suspect this is still the case at many research universities where the lab sections are taught by graduate students. I argue that this is a dereliction of duty on the part of faculty, and that even in the largest classes it is feasible and desirable to integrate the laboratory material with the lectures.

Introductory physics at the University of Alabama is now taught primarily in an integrated lecture/lab format (sometimes referred to as studio physics). In contrast to the traditional format of three lectures and a separate laboratory each week, we have two two-hour lecture/labs per week, plus a recitation session. Interestingly, this model makes the course quite similar to a high school course, especially one on a block schedule. With our studio format, the professor is directly involved in the lab, and the teaching assistants are present for both the lecture and labs (as well as other in-class exercises). There is considerable use of active learning techniques, including peer-instruction, collaborative work, computer simulations, interactive labs, and use of student response systems (clickers).

Among the advantages of lecture/lab integration is the timeliness of lab experiments. The experiments are intimately coordinated with the lectures, and both labs and lectures can be cross-referenced by the instructor to reinforce the concepts. Moreover, because the course is essentially taught in the lab setting, there are frequent opportunities to go right to the equipment to illustrate a point or answer a student’s question that might arise during a lecture.

While integrating lectures and labs makes labs more meaningful, there is another benefit: the faculty members are also more engaged with the process. Although there is a certain learning curve for the faculty to climb the first time they teach labs, it has frequently been the case that faculty go on to make improvements to lab experiments and to develop new experiments themselves. In the past, only one faculty member supervised the labs, and only that person (with input from the graduate teaching assistants, of course) participated in updating experiments and introducing innovations in the lab. Now at Alabama we have most of the faculty involved in studio physics instruction, and many improvements have been introduced by both theorists and experimentalists alike.

To start with, many professors have been making improvements in existing labs. This is going on continuously, and almost every week there is an email discussion among faculty members about possible improvements or extensions of that week’s experiments. And we do not confine experiments to just one day a week when the equipment can be used to advantage more than once. On another level, there have been several entirely new experiments developed by professors who ordinarily would not even be involved with the laboratories. As an example, one of our new assistant professors got an internal grant to develop interfaces that allow students to use the computer as an oscilloscope for I-V curves and for time constants for RC and LC circuits. Another colleague introduced an experiment using GMR probes to measure magnetic field strength and directly verify Ampere’s Law. Both of these were quite ingenious, and drew upon the specific research strengths of these faculty members. An experiment on coefficient of restitution, one on error analysis, one measuring the tension in an Atwood’s Machine, and a simulation of motion of a charged particle in an E-field (using Interactive Physics) were all developed by faculty who ordinarily would have little to do with labs. In short, the faculty members are now engaged in the laboratory course just as much as the students are.

Our experiences have shown that the studio format is an excellent one for engaging both students and faculty in the teaching/learning process. Studies show that a result of this engagement is that both conceptual learning and problem-solving skills are improved. The studio format stimulates much more student-teacher interaction than is possible in a lecture setting. Faculty involvement leads to continuous improvement of the lab and other activities in the course. While there are limitations to the size of a studio class, when it is a viable option the evidence does seem to show that integrated lectures and labs are a superior learning environment.

What if your class size is too large to accommodate a studio approach? This has started to be a problem at Alabama, where enrollments are rising rapidly. We now teach in both the large lecture and studio formats. I have found that since I am now familiar with the lab experiments, I can still incorporate lab experiences in my lectures when teaching in a traditional lecture setting. I can still have a voice on which experiments are done, and ask the teaching assistants to look at specific details if that will coordinate better with lectures. I think the students really appreciate my referring to the experiments when discussing theory and problem-solving in the lectures. The fact that I am not in the lab with them is unfortunate, but the fact that I am familiar with the labs allows me to make reference to them as evidence for the concepts I am teaching in lecture. So if you cannot implement a studio format, you can still familiarize yourself with the lab experiments in order to make the connection between them and material you introduce in lecture. I would argue that it is a professor’s responsibility to do so. I know that in many universities this is in fact happening. But if it is not happening in yours, well… it should be.

Our development of studio physics courses at Alabama has benefited immensely from interactions with Bob Beichner and project SCALE-UP, and funding from the University of Alabama and the U.S. Department of Education.

Stan Jones is Professor of Physics Emeritus at the University of Alabama and a former editor of the FEd newsletter.

This article is not peer refereed and represents solely the views of the author and not necessarily the views of APS.