FEd August 1995 Newsletter - Cottle letter

August 1995



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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 [1], 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 [2]. 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 situation.

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
Tallahassee, Florida

[1] G.E. Hart, M.S. thesis, Florida State University, 1995.
[2] P.D. Cottle and S.E. Lunsford, Phys. Teach. 33, 23 (1995).

Stan Jones responds