Well… I don’t think my students have this much conceptual difficulty, but I thought I’d start this post off with a bit of comedic relief.
Anyways, a week has passed since the last practical but I’m not behind in posting because this is the undergraduate reading week. My mind has been bubbling with ideas since then; most of which are the result of a TA brainstorming session we had on Friday. A group of enthusiastic learning assistants (lured partly by free pizza) gathered to share their ideas, concerns and advice with a representative from the undergraduate education department (or something of that sort). It looks like there are a lot of problems with this new physics curriculum (IE: the “practical sessions”). We conveyed a lot of worries and put forth a lot of suggestions which I will try to summarize here.
What I should first mention is that I am not alone in my difficulties. Almost all of the other learning assistants are, like me, having difficulties. Here are, in my opinion, the top three problems that we and the students are having with this course:
- The TAs and the students have a severe lack of feedback from each other.
- Students won’t ask questions about anything they’ve been having trouble understanding in class, on an assignment, or anything outside the lab activity.
- The students have difficulty finishing the activities before the end of the practical. This leaves almost no time for theoretical (tutorial-like) questions.
So. Problem 1 (The biggest):
Students need feedback on their work so that they can narrow down what it is they don’t understand. I think one of the hardest things about learning (in a student’s reference frame) is figuring out what it is you don’t know. But students are not given any feedback on their lab book (aside from an initial trial grading of the first activity). The reason for this is that not all activities in their lab books will get graded, and the choice of which ones will be graded is kept secret until midterm. The problem is that the TAs haven’t been told either… so we can’t go through on a weekly basis and put comments in the lab books because we haven’t been assigned enough hours to do that much “correcting”. Hopefully this will be easily taken care of by simply telling the TAs to grade a subset of the week’s activities on a regular basis.
Students need meaningful feedback when feedback is given to them. It’s quite deceiving when a computer tells a student that they’ve gotten the question 100% right when the truth of the matter is there are many things they still don’t understand. But this is what is happening. Each week the students are expected to complete an online assignment hosted by the Mastering Physics website. The problem with these assignments, I think, is best conveyed using the analogy of — and I apologize to the students for this analogy — trying to teach a donkey the way into town by leading it with a carrot on a stick, then expecting it to be able to make the journey on its own. The questions on the Mastering Physics assignments are good questions BUT they are asked in such a way that holds the students hands and practically gives them the answers to each step. This severely reduces the effectiveness of the questions. When I asked one of the students if she had trouble with the Mastering Physics questions she replied, “Well, I got the question right … but I still don’t understand what I did”. Other TAs and even past students have told me similar stories about these assignments.
… but perhaps these assignments are intended to be more useful as feedback for the TAs, you say?
If this were the case, then at least their existence would have some merit. The fact that the vast majority of the students in my section get above 90% on every question should illustrate that this is not very helpful as feedback for us. Apparently this Mastering Physics site has been used for years, much before the recent curriculum change. I think it was part of an effort to recycle old bits of curriculum that is falling short.
It also looks like a good example of an over-reliance on technology to improve education. Computers don’t teach people; people teach people. Fancy gadgets, clickers and advanced quizzing systems are a great idea, but they themselves are not enough. They need to be used effectively. I think this curriculum is still in its early stages of metamorphosis and everyone is still trying to figure out more effective ways of using the new technology and new teaching methods.
Possible solution to all three problems:
One fantastic solution to this problem came together as a melange of a few suggestions in the TA brainstorming session. The organizers of this course got rid of the formal tutorial sessions because they deemed them ineffective and thought it would be more effective to work that kind of material into the practicals. The way we are currently doing this is not working. Instead, what would be more helpful is to have “theoretical” questions as part of the lab activities. There are several benefits to this if it is conducted well.
Firstly, it would encourage the students to work out questions as groups inside the practical sessions. They could get immediate feedback from the TA, and if they worked out the question on their fancy new whiteboards (which I found to be an effective method when I tried it last week) the TA could immediately gather feedback from them in terms of conceptual difficulties and so forth. The questions could be made more difficult without the “hand holding” formulation because if they truly got stuck, they could ask the TA who would be able to gauge what hints were just enough to get the group back on track.
Secondly, the questions could be directly related to the lab activities they would do immediately after. This could solidify their understanding and also make it more interesting. They would be able to see the physics happen on paper, and then in real life. From a purely personal perspective, I frequently found the classroom material to be detached from “real life” physics when I was an undergraduate. It would be nice for the students to see a strong connection between the two through the curriculum.
Thirdly, and most importantly, it would give the students a taste of real science. IE: using a model to derive a prediction (hypothesis) and test it out in the lab. This would also mean that students could be expected to come up with their own experiment (perhaps with the TA’s help) in order to test their prediction. This would eliminate the mundanity of following lab activity instructions step-by-step with no real thought behind it (as was very common for me in my undergraduate days).
In all, I think it’s been a productive week for me as a learning assistant. I’ve pretty much given up on addressing them as a class in an attempt to gather conceptual difficulties. Instead what I found more useful was to visit each workstation individually. They are much less shy when I do that. That, in conjunction with having them work out a tricky problem on their whiteboards, will hopefully generate a better feedback loop between us.
I’d love to see more of these TA brainstorming sessions for other courses. I think much can be gained from a diverse group of minds and some free pizza.