Thursday, January 15, 2009

Panic! Classes start Tuesday. Course goals for conceptual physics course.

I apologize for the long delay between blog entries. Well, I suppose that will continue now that the fantasy time of Winter Break has ended. I finished up teaching Junior Lab in mid-December (my previous blog described the open science fun we have in that course). On Tuesday is my first lecture in Physics 102. I think the official title is Introduction to Physics, or possibly Introductory Physics. But the unofficial titles are more descriptive: Conceptual Physics, Physics without Math, Why the Sky is Blue, Physics for Poets, etc. This was the first course I taught at U. New Mexico, back in August 2006, and I love teaching it just as much as Junior Lab, though it is very different.

One of the senior professors here, Carl Caves, gave me some advice about Physics 102 that I liked. He said that he views the audience not as students that need to "think like physicists," but rather as our future voters, senators, and representatives who will have to make decisions about the worthiness of funding science. Of course, I received this advice a couple weeks after I was already completely overwhelmed with the course--but fortunately, his advice fit well with decisions I'd already made, so I was comforted. The fact that these students will impact my research funding is actually not a motivator for me, though that is true. (I'm actually still undecided on the merit of always arguing for increased federal spending on university research no matter what--and you can berate me about this in the comments if you'd like.) But it is very important to recognize that these students are different than the students in Junior Lab who have chosen to major in physics. They are not going to be practicing scientists (most of them) and thus, the goals are very different. Here are the goals I came up with and put on the syllabus I handed out to the students in 2006:

"The primary goal of the course is to help students develop a better understanding of a variety of physics concepts that they experience or hear about in their every day lives. We will strive for true understanding of the concept versus tiresome memorization of facts and trivia. This may lead to a heightened enjoyment of everyday physics wonders (such as rainbows, sunsets, waves, phases of the moon), and improved ability to understand technological issues (such as energy shortages and sources, automobile safety, nuclear power and radiation, cell phone communication) and a deeper understanding of future scientific material including biology, chemistry, geology, medicine, and possibly a more advanced physics course!"

I don't think that is so bad, especially considering I had about 2 weeks to prepare, never having taught a course before (aside from TA-ing), and receiving little guidance beyond the course number I was to teach, the classroom times, and the course description. Actually, that's not true, I did manage to meet with one of our star instructors, Kathryn Dimiduk (now at Cornell), and she gave me all kinds of very good advice. Nevertheless, I don't think those goals are so bad, considering how unprepared I was. The funny thing, though, is that those goals will pretty much be the same goals I profess on Tuesday, unless I find some time in the next five days to revise them. This is going to be very difficult, given that I have a mini-grant due Friday. Consider this your glimpse at my standard state of affairs. I have no talent for managing multi-tasking better than this. Could I have spent time over the break preparing for teaching and grant writing, instead of learning how to blog, signing up for FriendFeed, and meeting many new people around the world? Yes, I could have. Would it have been better? I don't know, I am a very good rationalizer.

With that in mind, "couldn't I be actually preparing for teaching right now instead of composing this interminable blog about panicking about teaching on Tuesday?" Yes, but in writing this blog, I am consciously and subconsciously thinking about complex teaching issues that will arise next week, and thus I am spending my time even more effectively than if I were to simply focus on the task.

OK, so what is wrong with my course goals? My problem is that they are not measurable by either me or the students. Or maybe they are, but I don't measure them very well. I came away from the "New Faculty Workshop" last November with the highest priority goal of implementing assessment in the courses I teach. A key element of assessment is to have a pre-test at the beginning of a course so you can assess the actual learning that has been achieved. The only assessment I have used are exams and the end-of-course instructor assessments. Neither of these have a pre-test, and thus they don't provide any information about learning. I now view the need for pre-tests as obvious from a scientific point of view, but I, along with many other scientists who are teachers, have not really approached education scientifically in the past.

There exist some research-based pre- and post-tests for physics, such as the somewhat-famous "Force Concept Inventory." But I am not aware of any tests which are well aligned with my "non-math" conceptual physics course. We do not use anything beyond arithmetic, really--just proportionalities or "if this increases, does that decrease or increase" kind of questions. (BTW: I was delighted to discover that there are many important physics concepts that can be learned without algebra...I feel like I could easily teach two semesters without mathematics!) Furthermore, if I were to write out goals that were measurable, some important goals would not involve physics concepts. Some may be more general science concepts. And I certainly would like to measure enjoyment and desire for learning about physics and science.

So, this is where I stand now. If you do know of any battle-tested assessment tools for this kind of course, I would very much like to hear about them. Or, even if you have any suggestions for questions I could pose that could be used as pre- and post-test questions, I would love to hear them!

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