Colleagues Committed to Redesign (C2R)

Auburn University

Course Title: Engineering Physics
Redesign Coordinator: Marllin Simon

Status: This project was part of Round II of NCAT's FIPSE-funded Colleagues Committed to Redesign (C2R) program, 2008 – 2009. Participants conducted a pilot of their redesign plans in fall 2008. In the C2R program, NCAT’s role was to introduce the course redesign methodology to participating institutions, assist them in developing project plans and work with them through the pilot period. NCAT was not involved in full implementation; consequently, the project’s status beyond the pilot period is unknown. For more information, contact the project contact listed above.

Project Abstract
Progress Report (as of 3/1/09)

Project Abstract

Auburn University plans to redesign Engineering Physics, the foundation course of its undergraduate engineering major, which enrolls ~750 students annually. The current course is offered in a traditional lecture, lab and recitation format. The lecture component is conducted by faculty, meeting either twice (75 minutes) or three times (50 minutes) a week. Each section is divided into groups of 24 students for labs and recitation sessions led by graduate teaching assistants (GTAs.) Labs focus on procedures, and the recitation sessions focus on solving problems.

Engineering Physics suffers from an unacceptably high failure rate. In the current structure, faculty provide the first exposure to course material to passive, unengaged students. Then the students attempt to process, analyze and synthesize this information to solve problems and/or apply it to actual situations. They receive little or no help, oversight or guidance from the faculty. Students are not engaged with the course and are frequently absent, and faculty are not connected to the students.

The planned redesign, using the Replacement Model, will give the students responsibility for the first exposure to the material through online activities and assessments completed prior to class. Faculty will monitor their progress. Class time will be used to summarize content and deal with misconceptions, subtleties, connections and applications. Progress and level of engagement will be monitored in class with a classroom response system and out of class with Cengage instructional package analytics. The lab and recitation sessions will be replaced with a single physics activity session, which will facilitate faculty, student and GTA interaction. Students will work in small groups in an inquiry-based atmosphere to solve real physical problems and capstone problems. Pre-tests, post-tests, problem-solving, active figures and conceptual inventories will be conducted online.

The quality of the educational experience will be enhanced as the course moves from a faculty-centered, passive-student environment to a student-centered active learning environment. Students will be engaged intellectually as they are introduced to a media-rich environment that includes collaborate learning activities and an inquiry-based curriculum. All homework will be completed and graded online, giving students immediate feedback on their assignments. Student progress will be closely monitored, and both faculty and GTAs will provide individual assistance to students who need help.

The impact of the redesigned course will be assessed using a “before” (traditional) and “after” (redesigned) model by comparing common content items selected from exams. For the last three years, Auburn has divided exams into conceptual parts with each part scored and recorded. Baseline data from 342 students enrolled in three traditional sections in fall 2006 and 2007 and spring 2008 will be compared by using the same questions in the final exams of three redesigned sections enrolling ~400 students.

Auburn’s cost reduction strategy is to decrease the number of GTAs involved in the course from eight to five in the fall and six to four in the spring by having each GTA carry three physics activity sessions rather than two labs and recitations. This change is made possible because of the coordinated development and automation of much of the course material. The cost-per-student will decline from $390 in the traditional course to $219 in the redesigned course, a savings of 44%. Once a new classroom building is completed, Auburn also plans to increase section sizes, thus freeing up some faculty to teach other upper-level courses.

Progress Report (as of 3/1/09)

The physics department has developed exams that are divided into content items based on conceptual/learning outcomes. These exams, which require mastery of basic concepts and test higher order thinking skills, have been used for the past three years and scored and recorded by content item. As a result, the department has an excellent baseline of student performance by concept and learning outcome. Eight of these content items (80 questions) were used in the redesigned course exams, allowing the team to compare student performance concept by concept. In six of the eight content items, redesign students outperformed students in the traditional course: in two items students by 4%; in three items by 8%; and in one item by 16%. There was no significant difference in the course completion rate.

Most of the pedagogical improvement techniques used in the pilot phase will become embedded in the second semester of the course. In fall 2009, the redesign team will move onto the second semester of the course, and other faculty will become responsible for the redesigned first semester. Their collective experience will determine the sustainability of the project. Since all changes are based on sound learning strategies, the team anticipates that they will have a positive experience.

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?

An interactive classroom. In order to facilitate active learning in large lecture sections (100 or 250 students), a classroom response system (clickers) was used to pose conceptual questions, which students answered after consulting with a small group of peers. Among other things, this technology allows instructors to troll for and correct student misconceptions. The team used a “you need to be there and you need to be engaged” attitude with regard to the use of the system, and it had a positive impact on attendance and student attitude. The use of a classroom response system made the course more interactive and had a positive impact on class attendance (responses contributed toward the course grade.)

Course consistency. Having a course coordinator, one syllabus, identical homework and lab assignments and the same grading system for all sections of the class was a positive moral factor for students.

Instant feedback for problem solutions. Ten problems requiring higher-order thinking skills and up to five tutorial “Active Figures” per chapter were assigned online. Since this work was submitted online and computer-graded (WebAssign), students received instant feedback.

Turn the course around. Typically, faculty provide the first exposure of the material to passive, unengaged students. The redesigned course made students responsible for the first exposure of the material, and the faculty monitored their progress with Cengage instructional package analytics. This was accomplished with a low-risk pre-test. As a result, class time was used to deal with misconceptions, subtleties, connections, applications and summarizing content.

Replacing lab and recitation with Physics Activities. Physics is no longer compartmentalized into a lab and recitation each week; rather there is a single physics activity session each week. During these sessions students worked in small groups to do whatever was most appropriate (work problems, review, online work, inquiry, etc.)

Virtual labs. Three of the 14 activity sessions were replaced with virtual labs (Polyhedron Learning) that students could do at their convenience and work at until they got the desired result. The virtual labs were selected on the basis that students could learn as much and/or more from the virtual lab as the analogous real time lab. This change has been viewed positively by students, TA’s and faculty. Students liked the flexibility that the virtual labs provided; they could do them anytime, anywhere, until they obtained the desired results, usually in less time than the real-time lab.

Computer-generated learning plan. Learning objectives were written for each chapter of the textbook, and a bank of questions was matched to these objectives. Students took a pre-test (ten questions randomly generated by the Cengage course software) matched to the learning objectives. The software then generated a customized learning plan based on their responses.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Changing the laboratory/recitation experience and adjusting TA load. In the traditional format, a TA taught two sections (each with a two-hour lab and a two-hour recitation) for a total of eight contact hours per week. In the redesigned format, a single three-hour Physics Activity session replaced the lab and recitation. Each TA teaches three sections for a total of nine contact hours. This increase of 14 contact hours per semester was offset by introducing three virtual labs and streamlining exam grading.

Coordinated course development. There was considerable savings in faculty time due to the fact that the course was taught as a single course rather than as different sections. The team leader developed the syllabus, wrote the learning objectives, created the problem assignments, selected the active figures, selected and/or developed lab activities, met weekly with TAs, coordinated the clicker questions, coordinated classroom demonstrations and worked with Cengage learning to create a question bank for a pre- and post-test over each chapter.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Impact of the pre-test on faculty evaluations. The practice of giving a pre-test was not popular with students, which impacted faculty evaluations. Even though the pre-tests were low risk (5% of the course grade), extra credit work has been provided to offset poor performance and performance on exams has been enhanced, new faculty have reason to be concerned about their evaluations.

Vendor-supplied materials. Some vendor-supplied materials and/or software (WebAssign) worked like clockwork, and students rarely had an issue. Other vendor and/or vendor-subcontractor materials and/or software created numerous student problems and compatibility issues. While the second semester of the pilot is experiencing fewer problems than the first, there is faculty opposition to the present e-text and associated materials.

Buy-in. The rationale for the new approaches needs to be made explicit to students and TA’s in order for them to appreciate and value the redesign. The team has learned that a faculty member can be an effective change agent without complete buy-in. However, a critical mass of the faculty must support the concept even if they disagree about implementation details.



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