NSF CETP Conference
24 March 2000

Active Engagement, Cooperative Learning
in Large Enrollment Introductory College Physics Lectures for Preservice Teachers

Dan MacIsaac, Ph.D.

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

-         this project was supported by the National Science Foundation through ACEPT (Arizona Collaborative for Excellence in the Preparation of Teachers), and the US Department of Education through AZTEC (Arizona Teacher Excellence Coalition).

-         my students (all preservice science teachers) who have contributed to the development of Seat Experiments, taking pictures, videotaping and transcribing include: Tom Thompson, Amber Cline, Heather Chlup, Nathan Marler, Nathan Davis, Tom Doran, Cherie Church, and especially Chris Ackerley.  Many of my students have provided patient, insightful comment.

-         an early version of presentation was given at the University of Helsinki, Finland in Nov, 1998 with their support.


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


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 -- perhaps 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)


MacIsaac's PHY112 Students:

60% health/life science majors
10% preservice secondary teachers
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)


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 as influenced by Vygotsky's ideas of Socially mediated learning and grounded dialog from Hestenes' Modeling Theory of physics instruction.

Interactive Engagement strategies from the Physics Education Research (PER) community identified by Hake, and interpreted via the ideas of Arons and Piaget & Garcia.


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 (Johnson, Johnson & Smith; 1991) 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

**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.


Vygotsky's Theories of Learning:

Lev S. Vygotsky (1896-1934) describes teaching as essentially a socially mediated progression by which skills are acquired.  Vygotsky is perhaps most famous for his Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) a theory claiming that there are three levels of student ability:

-         an established set of mastered skills students can perform with no assistance,

-         skills a student can perform only with the assistance of an instructor (aka the ZPD), and finally;

-         skills a student cannot perform even with assistance. 

[Vygotsky says] the role of formal education is to identify the ZPD of each student, and assist the student via social negotiation of meaning within that zone to develop their skills and move the zone to the next higher level of skills, a process he calls scaffolding. 

Vygotsky claims that the use of language is critical to the development of ideas to the extent that '…thought is impossible without language,'

The relation of thought to word is not a thing but a process, a continual movement back and forth from thought to word and from word to thought. … Thought is not merely expressed in words, it comes into existence through them.  (T&L, 218)


Hestenes' Modeling Theory of Physics Instruction:

-         the discrete unit of physics knowledge is a model, which is a conceptual representation of physics systems and processes. Models are the content, procedural core and structure of physics.  Only a very few models are required to teach introductory physics (E.g., model of a point particle moving at constant acceleration);

-         students must be explicitly instructed in the use of qualitative reasoning and representational tools as part of a modeling cycle;

-         in the modeling cycle, models are developed from observation of physical phenomenon, then deployed or applied to interpret new physical phenomena.

Explicit instruction in reasoning and representation centers upon the extensive use of student dialog, instructor Socratic questioning and student small group and whole class presentation and discussion of their own reasoning via whiteboarding strategies.

Whiteboarding uses dry erase markers and boards for groups of students to prepare representations of physical situations, analyses and ideas.  Student discourse is grounded in a concrete artifact for negotiation and presentation to others.  Groups present, discuss and elaborate their individual whiteboards to the whole class in a round-robin format.


WhiteBoarding (Seat Problems):

Groups of three students are given whiteboards and markers and asked to answer conceptual problems in
5 - 20 minutes.

Whiteboards are collected and coarsely group graded, related problems are given 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).

My large-group variants from Hestenes' high school instruction:

-         student discourse is anchored in the collaborative construction of solutions to abstract problems on their whiteboards rather than focused on real apparatus;

-         no round-robin group presentation is made at the end, though groups may be called upon during an instructor-led debriefing.


Interactive Engagement (IE, after Hake, 1998):

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


Piaget & Garcia

Piaget and Garcia (1988) describe both the psychogenesis of individual learning and the development of scientific thought as following parallel paths.  These paths start with observation of concrete experience, lead through the discernment and refinement of abstract properties that characterize these experiences, and end with the final development of completely formal mathematical models describing and predicting the interactions of these abstract properties.  P&G describe concrete experience as an essential element in early intellectual development, actually naming his first stage of intellectual development concrete reasoning. 


Arnold Arons

Arons (1988) reaffirms the centrality of concrete experience in teaching university physics, coining two new terms to bring the point home:

operational definition  - ascribing a property to a physical phenomenon through observation first and only afterwards naming the property with the textbook physics terminology (for instance, observing and feeling the deformation of rubber bands en route to defining what tension means), and

kinesthetic learning  - (muscular learning) learning properties of physical phenomena by making one's body part of the apparatus (E.g. – sitting on a wheeled cart that is dragged in a circular path; pushing heavy blocks of dry ice on glass before defining inertia). 


[Teaching electricity and magnetism]  …the failure to do this, the starting with the assumption that students must already 'know' both the phenomena and the terminology, is responsible for a substantial portion of the subsequent difficulties students have…[TIP, 168]


Seat Experiments (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 3 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 http://purcell.phy.nau.edu/) 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 to write a web collection of 32 seat activities (experiments and whiteboards) per semester for one semester each of mechanics and E&M/Optics covering course material. This is 2 per week for 16 week US semesters.

See http://purcell.phy.nau.edu/SeatExpts/


Instructor Commentary:

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.

Grading loads are managed by a very coarsely-grained 0 –5 pt system.  The first four points are given for thorough conscientious work, last 1 for correctness (after student feedback).  Complete/correct solutions are posted for exam study.  The idea is fast, easy and frequent feedback (helps attendance, too!)

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!"


Student Seat Experiment Commentary

Student feedback to seat activities in general has been extremely supportive and nearly all students claim or support claims that the activities are insightful, motivational, memorable and enjoyable.  Students routinely claim seat experiments are concrete, hands-on, based in real-life situations and help put their knowledge together.

If the course were to change and I could only retain one aspect that  would be the seat experiments because they make the lecture come together in a  concrete way rather than having me leave class with a bunch of abstract  material floating around in my head.

The seat experiments seemed very helpful to me because they were  purposely vague and they applied the concepts to real life. I liked them  because they took real life objects and situations and applied physics to  them. Secondly they required a more in depth understanding than just an  equation.

I enjoy most of the Seat Experiments because they give you a hands on approach to what we are learning and helps visualize our concepts.  The Experiments test our knowledge, but since they are in class, we can get help if we don't understand them.  I like the magnetic field seat experiment because by playing with the magnet we could see the direction and magnitude of the B field.


Student Whiteboard Commentary

Students claim whiteboards promote collaboration allowing the whole group to find mistakes in one another's reasoning, to teach (and learn from) one another, and to jointly practice problem solving strategies. 

It also makes it  easier for students to work together, not just one student working on one  sheet of paper.  They are valuable to my learning.  The figuring out parallel  resistors experiment was the most productive because the entire team was  involved in finding out answers.

The white board force students to participate in active and in depth thinking.  Also by working in groups, you can share knowledge with one another.  Or last white board showed us the the magnetic field work with equations and reiterated the right hand rules.

White boards are just as helpful as experiments. Even though they are not hands on I like being able to talk about the concepts with classmates and have some extra practice at solving problems. Drawing things out is very helpful to me in remembering how things such as electric and magnetic fields work.

…it's nice to be able to work with  people and talk about the things we are learning. It helps to see that other people are confused too, and we can help each other out.


Other student feedback themes include:

-         seat activities provide a mean to keep motivation, concentration and interest through long lectures

-         activities make you prepare more/read ahead better for class

-         group dynamics (guidance, makeup, changing, size) are critical to success

-         grading and evaluation are concerns as are time constraints

-         debriefing is critical, seat activities can be frustrating


A Dissenting Student Comments:

Seat experiments are the stupidest thing I've ever had to deal with.  I feel like the instructor is basically too lazy to lecture and actually teach us the stuff, so he has us "teach ourselves."  The seat experiments are vague in instructions and when we ask for help my group is always just given more and more questions by whoever is helping us.   

I would dispose of the seat experiments if I could get rid of anything in the class.  I cannot stress exactly how stupid and inane I find these things to be.  They waste my time, confuse me more and make me want to run screaming from the room every time we do one.



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