Seat Experiments in Introductory
College (Algebra-Based)
Electricity, Magnetism & Optics
Lectures for Nonmajors

Dan MacIsaac, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Physics & Astronomy
Northern Arizona University
Campus Box 6010
AZ 86011-6010

This presentation was given at the University of Helsinki, Finland in Nov, 1998 as part of trip as
the Opponent in the Ph.D. Dissertation defense of Dr. Ari Hamalainen.

The Problem:

Traditional lectures are far less-than-optimally effective at teaching physics to nonmajors:

- students sit passively back (are not actively engaged) and take notes while the instructor regurgitates the text (they watch the movie)
- for non-mechanics topics, students have little or no concrete experience with most of the phenomena treated during the course (no clue)
- on tests and exams students cram and regurgitate material with little understanding or experience with collusion by texts (vocabulary and chant: coil vs. solenoid, N3)
- students work in isolation in a competitive, individualistic atmosphere (fine for majors?)
- students are often very apprehensive (alienated; feel alone linked to mathematics preparation)
- lecture practice (derivations and demos) does not match test and exam goals (problem solving)
- students are highly grade-driven (not intrinsically motivated)


Laws, P. (1991). Calculus-based physics without lectures. Physics Today, 44(12) 24-31.
Tobias, Sheila (1990). They're not dumb, they're different: Stalking the second tier. Research Corporation: Tucson.
Zollman, D. (1995). Millikan Lecture 1995: Do they just sit there? Reflections on helping students learn physics. American Journal of Physics, 64, 114-119.

Better Physics Learning -- A Famous Related Problem:

Bloom, B. S. (1984). The Two Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring. Educational Researcher, 13, 4-16.

Two Possible Solutions:

Cooperative Learning from the general education research community

Interactive Engagement from the Physics Education Research (PER) community

Cooperative Learning:

the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other's learning.
(Johnson, Johnson & Smith; 1991)

Research shows cooperative learning promotes:

- Higher achievement [ES** = 0.86 or 0.86 S.D.]
- Increased retention
- More on-task, less disruptive behaviors
- Greater achievement and intrinsic motivation (interest)
- Positive attitudes towards peers, faculty, subject material, learning and the institution
- Positive self-esteem

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T. & Smith, K.A. (1991). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Interaction Book Co: Edina, MN.
Slavin, R.E. (1995). Cooperative Learning (2nd Ed). MA: Allyn & Bacon.

**Effect sizes (ES). These are computed as the difference between the means of the experimental and control groups, divided by the standard deviation of the control group.

Hake further discusses Cooperative Learning (1998) as one of a series of highly effective college physics teaching strategies he calls Interactive Engagement (IE):

Interactive Engagement (IE):

methods designed at least in part to promote conceptual understanding through interactive engagement of students in heads-on (always) and hands-on (usually) activities which yield immediate feedback through discussion with peers and/or instructors

[In contrast to]

traditional courses which make little or no use of IE methods, relying primarily on passive student lectures, recipe labs and algorithmic problem exams.
(Hake, 1998)

In a six-thousand student study of matched pre- and post-test results in introductory mechanics, Hake concludes that Interactive Engagement classes demonstrate standardized conceptual achievement test (FCI) gains of more than two standard deviations above those of students enrolled in non-IE courses. (Hake, 1998)

Hake's study of 2-sigma I.E. methods and materials included the following physics curricula:

Microcomputer Based Laboratory -based interactive activities with extensive and detailed follow-up discussion such as:

Workshop Physics Activity Guide (Laws, 1995) -- Lecture-FREE)
Real-Time Physics / Tools for Scientific Thinking (Sokoloff, Laws & Thornton, 1998)

Collaborative Peer Instruction

(Heller, Keith & Anderson 1992; Heller & Hollabaugh, 1992) -- the use of context-rich physics problems in a large group tutorial setting to replace traditional problem-solving recitations

Overview Case Study (OCS) and Active Learning Problem Sets (ALPS)
(Van Heuvelen, 1991; 1995) -- conceptual worksheets done in a regular lecture with a partner

Peer Instruction and Concept Tests
(Mazur, 1997) -- use of short peer instructional activities (conceptests) in regular lectures, with real-time grading by networked handheld computer scoring pads or calculators (E.g., Classtalk)

Modeling-Based Instruction
(Hallouin & Hestenes, 1987)--use of explicit meaning-generating heuristics constructing and testing mental models of physical phenomena by taking concrete data, graphing it and fitting then interpreting equations (like perceptional experimentality?) Uses very interactive small group methods at all stages E.g., whiteboarding.

Research-Based Texts (many of these emerging)
(Knight, 1991; McDermott, 1998; Chabay & Sherwood, 1995) -- stress investigative group work based on study of student learning of physics

Socratic Dialogue Inducing (SDI) Labs
(Hake, 1992) -- analysis of simple phenomena via group dialogues with trained facilitators

Common Factors in Hake's IE Curricula:

- All use research-based analyses of student physics naive understanding and learning (most are constructivist in philosophy)
- All use co-operative learning (get that +0.86 SD!)
- All reduce (several ELIMINATE) traditional lecturing, E.g., Workshop Physics
- All are experiential, and ground experience in concrete activities

MacIsaac's PHY112 Students:

60% health/life science majors
even gender representation
45 -120 students/semester all three semesters
typically 55% are in 6+ semester!
some have not taken math in 3+ semesters
LOTS of angst & insecurity


standard one semester survey of electricity, magnetism, DC circuits, optics and applications
2x75min OR 3x50 min lecture; 1x2hr lab; 1 hr HW session each week for apprx 16 weeks
I do lots of course web support (I steal time!)


lecture is long; 75 min = 1.6 micro-centuries
students have little concrete experience with these phenomena
I want to vary instructional approaches
lecture is passive (I want to engage the students)

Seat Activities (finally!)

- short, concrete, just-in-time phenomenological activities carried out in the seats of a large lecture theatre at pedagogically appropriate moments in regular physics lectures.
- activities are between five and twenty minutes in duration and all involve cooperative work in groups of 2 - 6 students.
- written qualitative and quantitative questions must be discussed and answered by the group and turned in on a single sheet of paper.
- group members have assigned rotating roles: scribe, mechanic, critic. Group dynamics are very important -- groups "dance."
- students share group grades for activities; activities are reiterated/expanded on exams.
- experiments are chosen to introduce phenomena and anchor cooperative group discussion in concrete experience (particularly lacking in introductory electrical, magnetic and optical phenomena).

Examples of seat experiments

from the introductory electricity and magnetism course (see include:

- describe phenomena and calculate the minimum force required to pick up paper bits with a paper-wrapped fast food straw;
- experiment with + and - charged pieces of sticky tape (observe conservation of charge, compare kinds of charge, qualitatively view 1/r2 relationship);
- construct and explain an electrophorus (charging, charge motion, work & fields);
- introduce simple circuits via batteries and bulbs (current flow, energy & potential);
- capacitance phenomena with genecons (hand-held generators), bulbs and super-capacitors;
- wind electromagnets. Explore solenoid field characteristics, magnetic permeability;
- assemble simple electric motors. Describe in terms of magnetic field interactions. Analyze changes in flux, Faraday's EMF, Lentz' Law;
- build and analyze a simple loudspeaker;
- experience mirror characteristics (plane & spherical- spoons);
- calculate indices of refraction, analyze disappearing coin phenomena using transparent plastic cups and water (spearfishing);
- determine focal length of convex glass lenses, examine pinhole camera images using lenses
- construct and diagram Keplerian and Galilean telescopes;
- determine prescriptions of student eyeglasses;
- examine polarization phenomena;
- examine single slit diffraction, multiple source diffraction using gratings, LP records and CDs;
- examine and describe gas line spectra; identify elements by spectra

My goal is 32 seat activities covering course material. This is 2 per week for 16 week US semesters.


Anecdotal Observations:

My students react very supportively to Seat Experiments.

Student feedback has been extremely supportive and nearly all students claim or support claims that the activities are insightful, motivational, memorable and enjoyable.

Instructor assessment has gone through the roof (high payoff / effort); students try to stay past the end of lecture (have to be run out of the room - videotape).

Students claim "...this is my most fun class," "...I'm amazed to see how organized / how much we get done in a single lecture..." "I never check the clock in class and am often surprised when it ends..."

In our department, this atmosphere is quite unusual for nonmajors.

Students perform an activity at least every 2nd lecture. Time to observe, diagram, discuss, report and debrief these activities in lecture time is significant and must be managed. Loss of topical breadth reviewing the commercial text material is made up by either a weekly written summary of the text material or by taking an electronically-offered test. Fewer topics are treated in greater depth via Seat Experiments -- "less IS more!"

Grading loads are managed by a very coarsely-grained 0, 1, 2 point systems. Students have complained and I am experimenting with a 0 -5 system. The idea is fast, easy and frequent feedback (helps attendance, too!)

Comments, Questions, and Observations are welcome by email. This presentation and references can be reviewed from: http://purcell.phy.nau/edu/SeatExpts/

WhiteBoarding (Seat Problems):

Groups of three students are given whiteboards and markers and asked to answer conceptual problems presented on the overhead projector in 5 - 15 minutes.

WhiteBoards are collected and coarsely group graded, related problems are done on exams and homework.

WhiteBoard problems are typically modified from curricular materials written by Arons (1997), Laws et al (1997), Knight (1996) and Mazur (1996).

Student discourse is anchored in the collaborative construction of solutions on their whiteboards rather than focused on real apparatus.


Bloom, B. S. (1984). The Two Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring. Educational Researcher, 13, 4-16.

Chabay, R.W. & Sherwood, B.A. (1995). Electric and magnetic interactions. Wiley: NY.

Hake, R. R. (in press). Evaluating conceptual gains in mechanics: A six-thousand-student survey of test data. Proceedings of the third international conference on undergraduate physics education, College Park, MD.

Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66, 64-74.

Hake, R.R. (1992). Socratic pedagogy in the introductory physics lab. Physics Teacher, 30, 546-552.

Hallouin, I.A. & Hestenes, D. (1987). Modeling instruction in mechanics. American Journal of Physics, 55, 455-462.

Heller, P., Keith,R. & Anderson, S. (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping, Part 1: Group vs. individual problem solving. American Journal of Physics, 60, 627-636.

Heller, P., & Hollabaugh, M., (1992). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping, Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups. American Journal of Physics, 60, 637-644.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T. & Smith, K.A. (1991). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Interaction Book Co: Edina, MN.

Knight, R. (1997). Physics: A contemporary perspective. Addison-Wesley:NY

Sokoloff, D.R., Laws, P. & Thornton, R.K. (1998). Real-Time Physics. Wiley: NY.

Laws, P. (1991). Calculus-based physics without lectures. Physics Today, 44(12) 24-31.

Laws, P. (1995). Workshop physics activity guide. Wiley: NY.

Laws, P. (1989). Workshop physics: Replacing lectures with real experience. Proceedings of the conference on computers in physics instruction,, 22-32. Addison-Wesley: Reading, MA.

Mazur, E. (1997). Peer instruction: A user’s manual. Prentice-Hall: NY.

Slavin, R.E. (1995). Cooperative Learning, 2Ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Thornton, R. K. (1989). Tools for scientific thinking: Learning physical concepts with real-time laboratory measurement tools. Proceedings of the conference on computers in physics instruction,, 177-189. Addison-Wesley: Reading, MA.

Thornton, R. K. & Sokoloff, D.R. (1990). Learning motion concepts using real-time microcomputer-based laboratory tools. American Journal of Physics, 58, 898-867.

Thornton, R. K. & Sokoloff, D.R. (1995, preprint). >Assessing and improving student learning of Newton's Laws part II: Microcomputer-based interactive lecture demonstrations for the first and second laws. tools. <>

Van Heuvelen, A. (1991). Overview case study physics. American Journal of Physics, 59, 898-907.

Van Heuvelen, A. (1995). Experiment problems for mechanics. Physics Teacher, 33, 176-180.

Zollman, D. (1995). Millikan Lecture 1995: Do they just sit there? Reflections on helping students learn physics. American Journal of Physics, 64, 114-119.

This presentation was given at the University of helsinki, Finland in Nov, 1998 as part of trip as the Opponent in the Ph.D. Dissertation defense of Dr. Ari Hamalainen.