How and Why Academic Physicists Can Aid Learning on Their Campuses

William L. Goffe

Physicists are likely aware that there have been increasing calls for college and universities to become more accountable for student learning.  Some of these calls have occurred in the higher education literature (Carey, 2011) and others have occurred in more public contexts. Perhaps the best recent example is "Academically Adrift" (Arum and Roksa, 2011a), which finds little learning among a significant fraction of college students.  These authors made their point even more publicly, during the height of the college graduation season, in "Your So-Called Education" (Arum and Roksa, 2011b). For a time, it was one of the most e-mailed articles from the New York Times.

It will probably surprise few that such calls date back some years.  What might surprise some is how similar concerns from years ago have come to colleges and universities in very real ways. Further, physicists in higher education are poised to play a unique role in helping improve learning on their campuses.

During the later years of the Bush Administration, the then Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, formed a committee that became known as the "Spellings Commission" (formally the "Commission on the Future of Higher Education"). While lauding some accomplishments of the U.S. higher education sector, it also expressed serious concerns. In particular, it stated (Commission, 2006):

Compounding all of these difficulties is a lack of clear, reliable information about the cost and quality of postsecondary institutions, along with a remarkable absence of accountability mechanisms to ensure that colleges succeed in educating students.

This concern has filtered down to colleges and universities through their accrediting bodies, which in turn are accredited by the U.S. Department of Education. The accrediting bodies wield a major stick -- if an institution of higher education is not accredited, their students can no longer use federal education support to pay for that institution's tuition and fees.

As a result of increased accountability pressures, U.S. colleges and universities are now directed to "assess" their students' learning and to take action if that learning is found wanting. It may surprise physicists that assessment experts are not familiar with the role that Physics Education Research (PER) has played in improving student learning. Indeed, Banta and Blaich (2011) lament that they can find virtually no examples of improved learning in higher education after a teaching innovation. Their paper does not mention physics at all! As a non-physicist familiar with some elements of PER, such as the work of Hestenes et al. (1992), Hake (1988), Crouch et al (2007) and Deslauriers et al. (2011) (of course, after Banta and Blaich (2011), but notable nonetheless), this lack of awareness of PER is remarkable.

This situation represents an opportunity for physicists. Assessment mandates are driving a real interest across campuses to improve student learning and most have committees that focus on this issue.  Physicists should consider advising if not joining these committees to bring their expertise to bear on both assessing learning and on teaching methods that increase learning. They are likely to find a very receptive audience given assessment pressures. As Banta and Blaich (2011) indirectly suggest, it appears that physicists have a nearly unique set of skills. It would be a loss for non-physicist colleagues and in particular our students if the teaching expertise that physicists have developed stays in physics departments.

  1. Carey, Kevin, (2011). 'Trust Us' Won't Cut It Anymore, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 18, , retrieved 6/16/2011.
  2. Arum, Richard and Josipa Roksa (2011a). Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, University Of Chicago Press.
  3. Arum Richard and Josipa Roksa (2011b). Your So-Called Education, New York Times, May 14, 2011,, retrieved 6/16/2011.
  4. Commission on the Future of Higher Education (2006). A Test of Leadership -- Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education,, retrieved 6/16/2011.
  5. Banta, Trudy W. and Charles Blaich (2011). Closing the Assessment Loop, Change -- the Magazine of Higher Education, January/February,
  6. Hestenes, D., M. Wells, M. and G. Swackhamer (1992). Force Concept Inventory, The Physics Teacher, 30(3), 141--158.
  7. Hake, Richard .R. (1988). Interactive-engagement versus Traditional Methods: A Six-thousand-student Survey of Mechanics Test Data for Introductory Physics Courses, American Journal of Physics, 66(1), 64--74.
  8. Crouch, C.H. and Watkins, J. and Fagen, A.P. and Mazur, E. (2007).  Peer Instruction: Engaging Students One-on-one, All at Once, Reviews in PER, 1(1),
  9. Deslauriers, L., E. Schelew  and C. Wieman (2011).  Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class, Science, 332(6031), 862-4.

William Goffe is an economist in the Department of Economics at SUNY Oswego.  He can be reached at: While an economist, he became interested in PER after two other economists (Mark Maier and Scott Simkins) sent him a paper they had written on PER as well as Carl Wieman’s “Why Not Try a Scientific Approach to Science Education?” (Change, September/October, 2007). He was deeply impressed and feels that PER has much to offer other teachers in higher education. Besides research in economic education, he has also published in computational economics and in how economists can best use the Internet. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Economic Education.