Knowledge Claims from AR Cycle 4

Three knowledge claims emerged from this study, each representing a collection of related characteristics and leading directly to a series of curricular reforms.

Knowledge Claim #1: The Perceived Quality and Worth of PHYS 152L

Student participants and instructors felt strongly that PHYS 152L was a generally worthwhile experience. Student participants judged worth primarily in terms of the acquisition of the skills typically required of practicing engineers and scientists. They felt that PHYS 152L provided both appropriate challenges and valuable experience for their academic and post academic careers as engineers. They also felt particularly strongly that lab illustrated the lecture material and encouraged the construction of meaning through greater experience and physical context and that this was an appropriate goal for the lab. Instructors measured worth in both skills acquisition and in conceptual familiarity with the subject being studied (Newtonian mechanics).

Participants felt that developing and mastering several skills in particular was highly appropriate. The most desirable skills were the plotting skills and least squares fit; the elementary statistics instruction and significant figures review; the development of formal report writing skills; the group work practice; the development of laboratory measurement skills including the manipulation and analysis of measurement uncertainty, and the opportunities for critical and analytical thought (in contrast to traditional plug-and-chug equation memorization and problem solving, which was associated with the course lectures).

Knowledge Claim #2: The Need for Greater Access to Laboratory Experience

Along with a recognition of particularly appropriate facets of the PHYS 152L experience came participant demands for greater levels of access to those experiences. This claim is a synthesis of Characteristics #2 and #3 -- which address curricular pacing, feedback and lab-lecture synchonicity. Participants were quite concerned with their time pressure -- with having adequate time to collect all of their data and having adequate additional access to the laboratory. They felt that the evening and one day per week open access was worthwhile and requested that it continue. If TAs spoke excessively, this also cut into limited student laboratory experience and was resented.

Participants also felt that while the prelaboratory questions and previous reports helped prepare and guide their laboratory practice, they did not have timely enough return of these materials and adequate access to appropriate grader commentary and feedback. This suggests a reformed, more timely system of grading PLQs and lab reports.

While most participants succeeded in making use of scientific plotting software after some initial difficulty, fewer succeeded in making use of spreadsheet software. All who did succeed at either computer software package felt these skills invaluable for their other coursework as well as for professional training as engineers. Greater access to these laboratory data reduction and presentation tools should be provided as well as formal training in their use. These would be additional appropriate activities to add to the curriculum.

Participants had some difficulty with the sparse schedule of the laboratory; one experiment every three weeks meant that participants had trouble recalling basic laboratory skills acquired during the last session. The sparseness of the experiments and frequency of the lectures -- two lectures each week -- led to difficulties synchronizing lab and lecture. As well, while participants found their lab experiences helpful illustrating theory described in the lecture (particularly with rotational motion), they specifically requested more experience with this very same topic.

Additional experiments would ameliorate these conditions, and allow the introduction of high quality, illustrative, kinesthetic experiments in rotational motion and momentum that would add variety to the laboratory experience and likely improve student learning. Suitable candidate activities are readily available (Arons, 1990; Laws et al., 1992).

Knowledge Claim #3: The Role of Critical Theory in Analytic Thinking, Curriculum Development and the Laboratory Learning Environment

This study made use of a number of nontraditional approaches to educational curriculum development and to research in the working classroom. For the purposes of in-depth curricular development, I feel that action research methods have no equal. Students and instructors enjoyed contributing to the study and provided meaningful insights, extensive interpretive guidance and concrete suggestions for improvement. Many of these suggestions were directly and immediately implemented in the curriculum. Of particular worth were the videotaped user observations. These observations revealed many shortcomings in the curricular materials, methodology and apparatus. Traditional educational research methods could not have readily provided the rich in-depth insight and guidance for curricular implementation.

However, there were clearly shortcomings in regards to the kind of insights acquired during this study (see Characteristic #8). Particularly evident was the confusion associated with the role of mechanical potential energy in E3. The design of this portion of the curriculum is particularly weak, and suffers from a lack of formal guidance (of the nature provided by learning theory and student conceptual research). This problem is not restricted to PHYS 152L -- there is a dearth of research into student learning of mechanics potential energy theory in the literature, and further investigation is warranted. Such student learning research is non interventional, it is essentially probing and descriptive in nature, and action research methodology is inappropriate. More appropriate methods such as modified Piagetian-style inquiry like that typified by the research of McDermott et al (McDermott, 1984; Trowbridge & McDermott, 1980; 1981) needs to be conducted. The curricular implementation of the theoretical fruits of this kind of research would be appropriate for action research development.

While the data collected from these participants were insightful, they should not be considered characteristic of the general student population of Physics 152L. Study participants had relatively greater opportunities to learn -- they were paid to spend about twice as much time with the curriculum than their peers. They also had greater opportunity to reflect upon and review their own learning with an expert present to guide their reflective process. And finally, the nature of the research called upon participants to repeatedly analyze and communicate their curricular experiences -- another opportunity to learn generally denied their peers. While it is unlikely the curriculum can be made as effective as one-on-one learning with twice as much curricular experience, insights gained from the research can be used to improve the curriculum experience for all of the students enrolled in PHYS 152L. As well, some of the characteristics from the research that aided student learning may be incorporated into the curriculum itself.

For instance, there were many instances of technical shortcomings in the curriculum and the materials and these are probably best identified by continued cycles of Action Research inquiry. A notable example occurred in the discovery of inappropriate reified practice in the MA1 curriculum: incorrectly assuming no need for elementary statistics instruction. Such instruction is required, including introducing Gaussian statistics and the provision of high quality examples of measurement analysis calculations and report writing. Better examples and more guidance for different portions of report writing and determining uncertainty on computer generated plots are required. Participants were particularly distressed when the manual was vague or did not fully correlate with either the apparatus or the software, and more attention needs to be paid to this problem. A host of other technical shortcomings in the curriculum materials (the manual, apparatus and computer software) have been described at length in the previous chapter and require attendance.

Dan MacIsaac, 1996 (