What is the Effective Practices for Physics Programs Project?

The Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3) Project, led by the American Physical Society (APS), in collaboration with the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), aims to help physics programs respond to challenges they already face with a collection of knowledge, experience, and proven good practice. The EP3 Project began with the creation of the Best Practices for Undergraduate Physics Programs task force in 2016, charged by the APS Council with developing a guide for self-assessment of undergraduate physics programs founded on documented best practices linked to measurable outcomes. The EP3 Guide will allow programs to create, improve, and assess their individual programs in a way that can respond to local constraints, resources, and opportunities, while being informed by current research and good practice within the discipline. The Guide will include both a set of effective practices, and a guide for self-evaluation suitable for departmental review. It will include considerations of curricula, pedagogy, advising, mentoring, recruitment and retention, research and internship opportunities, diversity, scientific skill development, career/workforce preparation, staffing, resources, and faculty professional development.

In addition to creating the EP3 Guide, the project will train physics program leaders and reviewers in how to use the Guide through workshops and online communities, conduct research on the impact of the Guide, and develop a plan for ongoing review and improvement of the Guide under the oversight of the APS Committee on Education (COE), with input and guidance from AAPT.

Who is leading this project?

The American Physical Society, with support from the American Association of Physics Teachers and funding from the National Science Foundation, created and charged the Best Practices for Undergraduate Physics Programs task force with creating the Guide.

See the EP3 team page for the makeup of the leadership team, task force, and other members of the team.

What is the motivation for this project?

In recent years there has been a growing emphasis on accountability in higher education. Regional accrediting bodies for colleges and universities, as well as other organizations administering professional standards, have increased emphasis on measures of performance based on established learning goals and closed-loop assessment processes at all institutional levels. Program-level and student learning assessments are becoming ever more important to institutional decision-making processes. Yet individual departments frequently must create assessment models entirely on their own, without the benefit of the experience of the broader physics community or from published research informing such models.

At the same time, many specific challenges face the discipline of physics as a whole. Physics remains among the least diverse of all STEM disciplines, in spite of continuing efforts to increase representation of women and other underrepresented groups. Students are not learning as much as they could in physics courses, in spite of an abundance of research-based pedagogies that have demonstrated improvement in both learning gains and student retention, especially of underrepresented groups, but that have not been widely adopted. Many undergraduate physics programs are modeled after those designed to prepare students as research physicists, while in reality over 60% of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in physics do not pursue a graduate degree in physics or astronomy. Few physics programs include significant development of critical professional skills suitable for the wide variety of professions pursued by our graduates. Finally, physics programs nationwide are not producing well-prepared high school physics teachers in numbers sufficient to meet the national demand.

There is thus a timely opportunity to address these issues by consolidating and disseminating effective practices using a process that is rooted in the experience and expertise of the physics community. This project will leverage the needs of physics departments to satisfy external pressures for accountability, while fulfilling their desire to improve the education of their students by implementing known effective practices.

Who is the audience for the Guide?

The main target audiences of the Guide are:

  • Chairs and other leaders who make programmatic decisions for physics departments and programs at 4-year institutions

  • Departmental reviewers who review such departments.

Secondary audiences who will not be explicitly targeted by the Guide, but who may also benefit from the Guide include:

  • Other physics faculty who want to reform courses or programs.

  • University administrators

  • Physics departments at 2-year colleges

  • Physics departments outside the US

What will be included in the Guide?

The Guide will include chapters on self assessment and program review, assessment of student learning, effective program leadership, and effective practices.

The chapter on self assessment and program review will support departments in the process of program assessment including strategic planning, creating vision, mission, and values statements, designing and sustaining program assessment plans, creating program and course-level Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), and preparing for accreditation and program review.

The EP3 Guide will provide evidence-based strategies for achieving specific goals in a wide range of areas such as improving curricula, pedagogy, advising, mentoring, recruitment and retention, research and internship opportunities, equity and diversity, scientific skill development, career/workforce preparation, staffing, resources, faculty professional development, and departmental leadership.

The Guide will link effective practices to specific goals and programs, and will provide summaries of the evidence supporting each effective practice and case studies of effective implementation.

How will the Guide help me improve my physics program?

The Guide will help you to develop learning goals for your program, create and implement a plan for achieving those goals, and assess your plan. The Guide will help you learn how to implement evidence-based effective practices to achieve the goals that matter most for your department. For programs seeking to improve or expand their offerings (e.g., increasing numbers of majors, recruiting and educating more high school physics teachers, implementing a Learning Assistants program, etc.), the Guide will provide succinct information on how research and community experience informs these topics.

How will the Guide help me with external program review or accreditation?

The Guide will include specific guidelines on addressing external program review or accreditation requirements, and help you address these requirements without reinventing the wheel, while using the process as an opportunity to improve your department. The Guide will help you to develop learning goals for your program, create and implement a plan for achieving those goals, and assess your plan. The Guide will help you learn how to implement evidence-based effective practices to achieve the goals that matter most for your department.

How will this project help external program reviewers?

The Guide will provide effective practices for achieving specific goals that physics programs might have, and thus will help reviewers provide targeted feedback that helps programs align with their own goals. In addition, the EP3 project will provide training for program reviewers to learn how to use the Guide to become more effective reviewers.

How will the Guide be developed?

For each section of the Guide, the task force identifies outside contributors (typically three to five individuals) who are experts in the topic addressed by that section. Each contributor produces a draft section based on a template and rubric created by the task force. The editorial director then compiles these drafts into a single coherent document, which is reviewed by a task force subcommittee and by the contributors, before being sent to other outside experts for peer review. For each section, we choose reviewers who are experts in the research literature around this topic, and reviewers who are experts in the implementation within the physics community (typically several reviewers with varying expertise with a total of 4 to 6 reviewers for each section). The section is then revised based on feedback from reviewers and approved by the entire task force.

When will the Guide be available?

The full Guide is predicted to be available by Fall 2020.

How does this project define effective practices?

Effective practices are defined as specific actions that departments can take that address the question, “How might a department achieve goal X.”

  • Effective practices should be documented as likely to support departments in achieving excellence.  They are based on the best available information, which may range from research published in peer-reviewed journals to community recognition that departments that have implemented these practices have been successful at achieving their goals.

  • Effective practices are context dependent. Programs need flexibility to prioritize and adapt to their individual goals, environments, resources, and constraints.

Will this project create a checklist of standards that all physics departments should follow?

No. The task force is committed to creating a Guide that supports departments in achieving excellence while giving them the freedom to set their own goals and adapt the recommendations to their individual goals, environments, resources, and constraints. To do this, the Guide will provide recommended practices for achieving specific goals, with the understanding that a department doesn’t need to adopt all of these practices or goals to improve their program and that there are many ways to accomplish particular goals that are unique to their setting.

Is APS going to start accrediting physics departments?

No. After extensive study and discussion with members of the physics community, including a survey of physics department chairpersons, the APS Committee on Education has concluded that it is not appropriate to institute certification or accreditation of undergraduate physics programs at this time; a conclusion also reached independently by the AAPT. The creation of the Effective Practices for Physics Programs Guide is based on a different model of engagement with the community. Its focus will be on providing a physics-community-based resource to assist programs in developing a culture of continuous self-improvement, in keeping with their individual mission, context, and institutional type. Such a guide will have many of the benefits of accreditation, without the disadvantages. If the American physics community decides at some point in the future that certification or accreditation is desirable, the effective practices described in the Guide could form the foundation for such a program.

How is this different from the SPIN-UP report?

The SPIN-UP report, published in 2003, focused on identifying the characteristics of “thriving” physics departments, defined as departments that have a large number of majors, are valued by other departments within the university, engage students in the life of the department and undergraduate research participation, and have lively outreach efforts and recruitment programs. SPIN-UP focused on strategies to increase the number of undergraduate physics majors and degree recipients. Because of the limited scope and resources for SPIN-UP, the report did not say much about curriculum, professional skills development, and program assessment. The Guide will draw heavily on the SPIN-UP report where appropriate, but will have a much broader scope.

How is this different from the Phys21 report?

The Phys21 report, published in 2016, focused on advice for physics departments on how to prepare students for diverse careers. The charge of the this task force is much broader, and will offer advice to departments on achieving many other goals, including preparing students for diverse careers. The Guide’s section on preparing students for diverse careers will draw heavily on the Phys21 report.

How will the Guide incorporate existing reports?

A number of task forces, within and outside the physics community, have investigated specific issues faced by departments and university.  The Task Force will draw heavily from these reports, as appropriate, and will provide a brief summary of the report’s findings and evidence that support the effective practices drawn from them.

How is this similar to or different from what other professional societies are doing?

Unlike a number of professional societies, this will not be an accreditation or degree certification process. Rather than having physics professional societies stipulate what physics programs should be doing (which could be an outcome of an accreditation process), the Guide is being  developed to help programs (a) understand what they want to do (create, improve, and/or assess their program), and (b) once they determine that, provide guidance on how to do it. Tools for helping programs develop assessment plans, answer specific questions about curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, recruitment, retention, etc., will be elements presented in the Guide. Information within the Guide will incorporate both the understanding of researchers who have compiled a large body of knowledge about evidence-based effective practices, and the experience of practitioners who have put this knowledge into practice. The Guide is also intended to present information/recommendations in a flexible manner sensitive to the wide variations in institutional contexts — types, constraints, resources, geography, demographics, etc. — with the understanding that (a) these aren’t prescriptive (a department doesn’t need to do all of these to improve its program) and (b) there are many ways to accomplish particular goals that are unique to its setting. The intention is to provide information departments can use to improve their programs while not requiring departments to conform to generic standards or limit their efforts with the constraints an external approval process.

Will the Guide help me with my upcoming program review or my institution’s regional accreditation process?

The task force recognizes that institutions are subject to regional accreditation and periodic program review. Physics departments must participate in this process, and one goal of creating the Guide is to provide a process that will fill the needs of regional accreditors, while engaging departments in a process of continuous improvement of their programs. The Guide additionally is designed to help departments prepare for periodic external review -- a process most physics programs undergo every 5-7 years. Having a single process that serves all of these goals can result in time savings from preparing for multiple external assessments, as well as keep faculty from reinventing programs where substantial knowledge is already available.

How will the Guide be maintained?

The guide will be an online document that can be easily navigated and maintained. A key component of the vision for the Guide is that it will be a living document, maintaining currency with developments in research and community practice.  When the Guide is complete, the APS Committee on Education (COE) will take over long-term maintenance and revision of the Guide, using a process similar to that outlined by the Task Force.  A subcommittee will be created with individuals recommended by the APS and AAPT charged to review and update the Guide based on community input and advances in the literature. Small updates will occur on an annual basis. Every 5 years there will be a more detailed revision process, involving a review of the entire Guide, updates to existing sections, and adding new sections as needed.

I’m an expert. How do I contribute to the Guide?

The task force has, and will continue to, consider volunteers who can contribute to the Guide as content and implementation experts. Experts have been and will continue to be asked to contribute content or to serve as reviewers for relevant sections of the Guide. If you would like to know more, please contact the task force co-chairs, David Craig and Mike Jackson.

How can I learn more?

To learn more about the members of the EP3 team, see the EP3 team page. If you’d like to talk to us about the project, please contact one of our co-chairs, David Craig or Mike Jackson.

To get updates on the project, join our mailing list.

How do I formally cite the Guide?

A Guide to Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3)”, S. McKagan, D.A. Craig, M. Jackson, and T. Hodapp, Eds., (American Physical Society, College Park, MD, Version 2020.1), in preparation." If you are citing a particular section or chapter of the Guide, do so as you would a book chapter, for example, "A. Author, contributor to “Recruiting and Retention” in “A Guide to Effective Practices for Physics Programs (EP3)”, S. McKagan, D.A. Craig, M. Jackson, and T. Hodapp, Eds., (American Physical Society, College Park, MD, Version 2020.1), in preparation.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1738311, 1747563, and 1821372. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.