Best Practices for Undergraduate Physics Programs (BPUPP) Task Force

Sarah McKagan, American Physical Society
Theodore Hodapp, American Physical Society
David Craig, Oregon State University and Le Moyne College
Michael Jackson, Millersville University

The Best Practices for Undergraduate Physics Programs (BPUPP) task force1 is a group of national leaders in physics program evaluation and revitalization, charged with creating a guide for programmatic assessment, review, and improvement, and to train departmental reviewers and department chairs how to use the guide. The goal of this guide is to help departments answer challenges they already face with a collection of knowledge, experience, and proven effective practices. The guide will allow departments 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 practices 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 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 agreed upon 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 waste time creating 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 disciplines2, 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 courses3, in spite of an abundance of research-based pedagogies that have demonstrated improvement4,5 in learning gains and student retention, especially of underrepresented groups, but that have not been widely adopted6. 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 astronomy7. Few physics programs include significant development of critical professional skills suitable for the wide variety of professions pursued by our graduates8. Finally, physics programs nationwide are not producing well-prepared high school physics teachers in numbers sufficient to meet the national demand9.

There is thus a timely opportunity to create a nationally recognized process that addresses these issues. 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.

The Guide for Programmatic Assessment, Review, and Improvement

The guide will include two main sections: (1) a guide for self-assessment, and (2) an effective practices guide with concrete solutions to common problems.

The guide for self-assessment will support physics programs in the process of program assessment including strategic planning, creating vision and mission statements, designing and sustaining program assessment plans, creating program and course-level student learning objectives and how to assess them, and preparing for university-level accreditation and program review.

The effective practices 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.

These practices will be based on the best available information, which may range from research published in literature reviews and National reports to community recognition that physics programs have successfully implemented these practices to achieve a particular goal or outcome. A range of practices will be given to provide physics programs with the flexibility to prioritize and adapt these practices to their individual goals, environments, resources, and constraints.

There will be a staged release of the guide, with the first few sections available in early 2018, and the first version of the guide available in the spring of 2019.

Sarah McKagan is the project manager for the Best Practices for Undergraduate Physics Programs Task Force and is the creator and director of, a website that supports physics faculty in using research-based teaching and assessment in their classes and departments.

Theodore Hodapp is the Director of Project Development and Senior Advisor to Education and Diversity for the American Physical Society (APS) in College Park, Maryland.

David Craig is the co-chair of the Best Practices for Undergraduate Physics Programs Task Force, Professor of Practice of Physics at Oregon State University, and Professor of Physics at Le Moyne College.

Michael Jackson is the co-chair of the Best Practices for Undergraduate Physics Programs Task Force and is Dean of the College of Science and Technology at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.



2. National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System:

3. J. Von Korff, B. Archibeque, K. A. Gomez, T. Heckendorf, S. B. McKagan, E. C. Sayre, E. W. Schenk, C. Shepherd, and L. Sorell, “Secondary analysis of teaching methods in introductory physics: A 50k-student study,” Am. J. Phys. 84, 969–974 (2016).

4. S. Freeman, S. Eddy, M. McDonough, M. K. Smith, N. Okoroafor, H. Jordt, and M. P. Wenderoth, “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 111(23), 8410–8415 (2014).

5. D. E. Meltzer and R. K. Thornton, “Resource Letter ALIP–1: Active-Learning Instruction in Physics,” Am. J. Phys. 80, 478 (2012).

6. C. Henderson and M. Dancy, “The Impact of Physics Education Research on the Teaching of Introductory Quantitative Physics in the United States,” Phys. Rev. Spec. Top. - Phys. Educ. Res., 5 (2), 020107 (2009).

7. C. S. Tesfaye and P. Mulvey, Physics Bachelors: One Year After Degree, American Institute of Physics, College Park (2014);

8. Phys21 report from JTUPP (

9. S. White and J. Tyler, High School Physics Teacher Preparation: Results from the 2012–13 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers, American Institute of Physics, College Park (2015);

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.