Transforming Introductory Physics Courses:

From a Large Lecture Classroom to a Student-Centered Active Learning Space

John W. Belcher, Peter Dourmashkin, and David Litster

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Studio Physics is a new format for freshman physics education at MIT that is designed to help students develop much better intuition about, and conceptual models of, physical phenomena. The format is centered on an active learning approach - that is, a highly collaborative, hands-on environment, with extensive use of networked laptops and desktop experiments.

What is the focus of your investigation?

The motivation for moving to a different mode of teaching introductory physics courses was threefold. First, the traditional lecture and recitation format for teaching the mechanics and electromagnetism courses at MIT has traditionally had a 40-50% attendance rate, even with good lecturers, and a 10% or higher failure rate. Second, a range of educational innovations in teaching freshman physics has demonstrated that any pedagogy using interactive-engagement methods results in higher learning gains than the traditional lecture format. Finally, unlike many educational institutions in the US and around the world, the mainline introductory physics courses at MIT have not included a laboratory component for over three decades. Experiments were something we felt were crucial for understanding, and something we were anxious to re-introduce.

The objective of the TEAL project is to transform the way physics is taught to large physics classes at MIT in order to decrease failure rates and increase students conceptual understanding, as well as maintaining their quantitative problem solving skills. Visualization technology can be used to support meaningful learning by enabling the presentation of spatial and dynamic images, which portray relationships between complex concepts. This is especially important in electromagnetism, where the concepts are hard to grasp and visualize.

Supported by the d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education

Also supported by the MIT/Microsoft iCampus Alliance

Physics 8.02T course web site

What resources / references have you found helpful?

"Studio Physics" loosely denotes a format instituted in 1994 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute by Professor Jack Wilson. This pedagogy has been modified and elaborated on at a number of other universities, notably in North Carolina State University's Scale-Up program, under Professor Robert Beichner. Our approach is most similar to the NCSU Program.

The Scale-Up Project at NCSU

Fig. 1 Undergraduate physics students in the d’Arbeloff Studio Classroom.
Fig. 1 Undergraduate physics students in the d’Arbeloff Studio Classroom.

What was your approach and what tools were constructed to facilitate the students' understanding of the subject matter?

The TEAL project is centered on an active learning approach, aimed at helping students visualize, develop better ntuition about, and conceptual models of electromagnetic phenomena. Taught in a specially designed classroom with extensive use of networked laptops, this collaborative, hands-on approach merges lectures, recitations, and desktop laboratory experience in a media-rich environment. In the TEAL classroom, nine students sit together at round tables (Fig. 1), with a total of thirteen tables.

Five hours of class per week is broken into two, two-hour sessions and a one-hour problem-solving session led by graduate student teaching assistants. The students are exposed to a mixture of presentations, desktop experiments, web-based assignments, and collaborative exercises. The desktop experiments and computer-aided analysis of experimental data provide the students with direct experience of various electromagnetic phenomena.

TEAL also incorporates advanced two- and three dimensional visualizations, that employ Java applets, ShockWave visualizations, and 3ds max animations to allow students to gain insight into the way in which fields transmit forces by watching how the motion of objects evolve in time in response to those forces. The animations allow the students to intuitively relate the forces transmitted by electromagnetic fields to more tangible forces.

As an example of one of our visualizations, Figure 2 shows the output of an applet that allows students to explore visually the structor of vector fields. The vector field in this case has an x-component give by sin(y*y) and a y-component given by cos(x*x).

Fig. 2  David Rush's entry for the Weird Fields Contest
Fig. 2 David Rush's entry for the Weird Fields Contest

Spring 2004 Weird Fields Contest As Reported In Wired.Com

What results have emerged?

The TEAL Project has had a robust assessment and evaluation effort underway since its inception. This effort is led by Professor Judy Yehudit Dori, a faculty member in the Department of Education in Technology and Science at the Technion. We use a variety of assessment techniques, including the traditional in-class exams, focus groups, questionnaires, and pre and post testing. Our pre and post tests consists of 20 multiple choice questions covering basic concepts in electromagnetism. Some of these questions are taken from standardized tests that have been developed and used at other institutions, and some of these questions were developed at MIT.

Figure 3 shows the results of the pre and post testing for Spring 2003 8.02. The results are given for three categories of student scores: High, Intermediate, and Low. This separation allows us to gauge the effectiveness of instruction across the range of student backgrounds; the separation is made using the student score on the pre-test. The difference between the pre and post scores is a measure of the effectiveness of instruction.

To summarize those results, the learning gains in TEAL Spring 2003 by standard measures are about twice those in the traditional lecture/recitation format across the entire range of student backgrounds. In particular, we compared our results in TEAL to the standard MIT lecture/recitaiton format taught in Spring 2002. The fact that interactive-engagement teaching methods produce about twice the average normalized learning gains when compared to traditional instruction replicates the results of many studies obtained at other universities, including Harvard.

More about TEAL and its assessment and evaluation

Fig. 3 Comparison of student scores on pre/post tests for Spring 2003
Fig. 3 Comparison of student scores on pre/post tests for Spring 2003

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