Physics Education

Headed by Dr. Robin Jordan.

The program in physics education is concerned principally with investigating and developing methods of improving the teaching and learning of physics. Currently, we identify three main thrusts, (a) introduction and development of active-learning pedagogies in the classroom, (b) the development of methods for delivering general physics courses - including course materials and laboratories - on-line, and (c) methods for developing discriminating multiple-choice tests.

Active Learning Pedagogies

Florida Atlantic University is one of almost 100 institutions participating in The Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) Campus Program Leadership Clusters, which is dedicated to cultivating and sharing experience and expertise in the scholarship of teaching and learning. The aim is the introduction and development of active-learning pedagogies for the classroom. The Scholarly Inquiry about Active Pedagogies cluster brings together faculty members of Clayton State University, Florida Atlantic University, Indiana State University, Texas Tech University, and University of Massachusetts - Lowell committed to the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Dr. Jordan
Dr. Jordan leading a discussion on examples of Active Learning at the
2005 Summer Academy, Institute for Higher Education Policy,
held in Snowbird Utah, July 2005.

The cluster focuses on promoting the use of active pedagogies and researching the effectiveness of these pedagogies. We are working to develop and study various curricular models that incorporate appropriate technologies, assessments, and pedagogies that promote deep learning and critical thinking. Pedagogies being explored include:

  • active learning
  • collaborative learning
  • problem-based learning
  • service learning

Assessments have been conducted at each campus and results have been presented and disseminated through printed and electronic publications.

At FAU we are concentrating on the introduction, development and assessment of electronic response systems in the classrooms. Recent highlights include an exceedingly well received interactive workshop run by the Active Pedagogies Cluster entitled "Incorporating Active Learning into Courses and Program; A Scholarly Dialogue" and co-chairing a roundtable discussion about classroom response systems at the 2005 Summer Academy, Institute for Higher Education Policy. A more detailed description of some of the activities being carried out at FAU can be found here.

On-line, remote controlled general physics laboratories

We are collaborating with Dr. Bassem Alhalbi (Department of Computer Science and Engineering, FAU) on a pilot project to design, develop and evaluate eight, on-line, General Physics lab exercises that students can access from any location, at any time, over the Internet. Each exercise will not only require the student to make measurements using authentic and controllable on-line experiments, but also to respond to a number of challenging questions at appropriate points, to create a true learning experience.

 There are a number of features that make this and exciting proposal. For instance:

  • The development of an on-line lab is demanding because most experiments require the control and adjustment of several components and parameters; as far as we are aware, there are no on-line General Physics labs currently operating. However, we are adapting and implementing current technology - remotely controlled stepper/servo motors, drives and web-cams - with the on-line interactivity afforded by the Internet, to provide a realistic lab experience for students in which they can explore dependent and independent variables.
  • An on-line lab with authentic experiments has advantages over alternative methods of delivery, such as simulations and videotapes. Although improvements in software design are making simulations closer to reality, they do not provide the feel of a real, physical situation and the knowledge gained depends largely on the design, authenticity and restrictions of the software and the perceptions of student. With videotaped experiments, students play a passive role, which research shows cannot substitute for the experience gained by being actively involved in the experiment. However, an on-line lab offers both a hands-on and minds-on experience.
  • When combined with a well designed lab guide - based on proven items from Physics Education Research - that is focused more on supporting the learning goals of the course and developing some general intellectual skills (rather than telling students what to do to get data for a report), on-line lab exercises can be a very effective learning tool. A further advantage is they can be integrated into a distance-learning course when most appropriate.

Our goal is to develop fully integrated, on-line and pedagogically sound General Physics courses that consist of course work - distributed by DVD or on-line audio/visual synchronized lectures - and lab exercises in motion, mechanics, rotational motion, heat, electricity, magnetism, optics, etc. It provides a real challenge and, as far as we are aware, no such integrated courses have been developed.

Developing discriminating multiple-choice tests

Many of the large introductory classes use multiple-choice tests to determine students' achievement and mastery of the course material. However, multiple-choice tests have, at best, a mixed reputation among faculty. The two most important characteristics of an achievement test are its validity and reliability. The validity is determined by how well the test samples the range of knowledge, skills and abilities acquired by students as demanded by the course. The reliability depends on grading consistency and discrimination between students of differing performance levels.

Our aim in this project is to investigate and quantify the most important factors in creating valid and discriminating multiple-choice tests. By carrying out an item analysis on recent tests in physics and physical science classes we are attempting to determine what constitutes "good" questions, i.e., ones that not only sample creative and critical thinking skills at various levels but discriminate reliably between students who have a clear understanding of the course material and those who do not. Initial results indicate that various tasks, such as memorization and recall, unit conversion, algebraic manipulation. etc. can be given a numeric level of difficulty, so that any question that involves a number of different tasks can be assigned a "difficulty value". Results (obtained by Angelica Hotiu, graduate student) have shown that the degree of difficulty and the discrimination index are closely correlated, i.e., as the degree of difficulty increases so does the discrimination index. However, there is a "maximum difficulty" beyond which the discrimination index falls.