State University of New York: SUNY Course Redesign Initiative

Stony Brook University

Course Title: Physics for Life Sciences
Redesign Coordinator: Rod Engelmann

Project Abstract
Final Report (as of 3/15/10)

Project Abstract

Stony Brook University plans to redesign Physics for Life Sciences, a two-semester, four-credit introductory physics course sequence which starts each fall with an annual enrollment in both courses of ~1280 students. The majority of the students are juniors. Each term, three faculty members each deliver three traditional one-hour lectures a week, 16 faculty members hold one-hour weekly recitation sessions, and 26 graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) hold 52 two-hour lab sessions per week. Homework is web-based and graded by software for credit. Exams in essay format are graded by hand.

The course faces both academic and resource problems. The traditional, lecture-based format is ineffective in engaging the students. Different GTA styles lead to a non-uniform lab introduction and inconsistency across sections. Individual help for students is insufficient. The steadily growing enrollment, which has almost doubled during the last five years, has become increasingly difficult to service with fixed resources. Due to planned increases in enrollment campuswide, the annual increase in course enrollment is projected to continue and may accelerate for years to come.

Stony Brook University will employ a Replacement Model in its redesign. Both course and laboratory lectures will be delivered electronically. Lecture time will be replaced by three weekly interactive workshops taught by three faculty in three sections employing a class response system. Both the workshops and the lab sessions will be preceded by web-graded homework for credit; lab reports will also be automatically graded. All homework and lab report grading software has a strong tutorial component. A help room will be staffed with GTAs and undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs) who work for credit and are supervised by a faculty member. Individual help will be provided by the three faculty members teaching the workshops via e-mail, and in a virtual help room during peak hours.

The redesigned course will enhance the student learning experience by encouraging active learning. Students will be actively engaged at every step along the instructional process. Students will have the tools for prompt self assessment, including the extensive tutorial queries in all web-graded homework and lab reports. Additional help via e-mail and a virtual help room provided by faculty and extended help room coverage with GTAs will further support student learning.

Student learning outcomes will be assessed by comparing performance data from parallel sections in fall 2008 from one traditional section enrolling 200 students and three redesigned sections enrolling 750 students. Performance on common content items selected from the final exam and on pre- and post-tests using Physics Concept Inventory Tools will be compared.

The redesigned course will reduce the cost of instruction by eliminating recitation sections, increasing annual enrollment from 1280 to 1370, decreasing the number of lab sections from 52 to 46 and increasing their size from 24 to 30. The number of full-time faculty will be reduced from 32 to 8 and GTAs from 26 to 24. These actions will decrease the cost-per-student from $463 to $236, a 49% savings. Full-time faculty will become available to teach additional courses, and the classrooms used for traditional recitation sections will be opened for other uses.

Final Report (as of 3/15/10)

Impact on Students

In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?

Improved Learning

In both the traditional and redesigned courses, a pre-test at the beginning of the semester was executed and the same questions were mixed into the final exam. The questions were chosen such that the underlying physics concepts had to be taught in the course but the major part of the questions themselves was not from examples treated in the courses explicitly.

The improvement of the test scores in the traditional course was from 24.3 % in the pre-test to 42.0 % in the post-test, a gain of 17.7 points. The improvement of the test scores in the redesigned course was from 29.0 % in the pre-test to 54.6 % in the post-test, a gain of 25.6 points.

Although serious efforts were made to have uniform test conditions in both course types, there were differences in the execution of the post-tests. The redesigned course allowed students to use a student-written formula sheet and graphing calculators whereas the traditional course instructor did not. (The traditional course was taught by a faculty member who was not a member of the redesign team.)

The team concluded that the redesigned course, although showing an apparent larger pre/post–test improvement, may not have done better than the traditional course in view of the difference in post–test execution.

Improved Completion

The percentage of students completing the course successfully (a grade C or better) was 83 % in the traditional and 86% in the redesigned course. The percentage of those receiving a grade D or better was 91% and 95% for the traditional and redesigned course respectively.

Other Impacts on Students

Although a small fraction of the students found the increased interaction with the material in the redesigned course too labor intensive, most students welcomed the increased interactivity and feedback in course homework, lab homework and workshops as well as the more intense work with the graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) in executing the lab experiments.

Impact on Cost Savings

Were costs reduced as planned?

The team implemented the originally planned cost savings. The overall cost-per-student was reduced from $463 to $236, a saving of 49%. The elimination of faculty-taught recitations in particular produced the bulk of the savings and liberated faculty for an expansion of help rooms for more courses. The new format of the lab, the video introduction of the lab and the requirement of making homework due prior to the execution of the lab allowed the GTAs to spend less time on introducing material and more time working with the students in executing experiments. This, in turn, enabled the GTAs to grade using pass-fail the individual student’s contribution to the execution and analysis of the experiments in situ without having to grade a report and made possible a 20% increase in the number of students per GTA.

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

What techniques have contributed the most to improving the student experience?

  • Better preparation for workshops and labs. Since course and lab homework were due before the workshop and lab sessions, the students were better equipped to do more meaningful work.
  • Greater academic productivity. Both teachers and students were more productive in the interactive workshops than in a lecture.
  • Increased support for students. In the new lab format, the increased attention given by the GTAs during the execution phase of the lab experiments enabled the students to do the lab experiments with more understanding.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

  • Elimination of recitation. The recitation component of the traditional course was eliminated.
  • Elimination of hand-grading. Any grading by hand was eliminated including course and lab homework (web-based), workshop credit (calculated by the teacher’s lap top from the student answers submitted with RF remotes) and exams graded with scantron sheets (marked by the students answering multiple-choice questions.) The only human grading component was a pass-fail grade assigned by the GTAs in the execution phase of the lab experiments. This made possible a 20% increase in the number of students per GTA.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

  • Student communication during workshops. If an instructor tried to veto inter–student communication during the answer phase of the workshop questions, his or her enthusiasm to engage in policing was very quickly exhausted since there were ~ 250 students in a section. The team decided to let students discuss during the answer phase; in fact, they decided to encourage it to support peer teaching. This invariably led to a sizeable fraction of the class “switching off” on various levels during the topic explanation and “waking up” when the answer was due. 


Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?

The redesign was a combined effort of the physics department, university administration and IT professionals and will continue with modifications. From fall 2010 onwards, the smaller courses (Physics for Life Sciences I and II) with ~ 200 students (which begin in the spring semester and end in the fall semester) will be redesigned as well.

The improvement of the redesigned course is an ongoing effort. In view of the shortcomings of the existing workshops described above, the next steps are to bring the workshops closer to the “studio” format, which has been very successful in physics courses elsewhere. The students will work in groups of three on guided, inquiry-based projects in a large hall with computer-equipped tables and display hardware for the teacher. Students will work in groups on projects: drylab simulations, which will run with appropriate guidance on student laptops. The instructor(s) and students will run collaboration software which allows the instructor(s) to view the student’s desktops and offer advice.  Students will perform the drylabs under the control of an online assessment system with which they are connected wirelessly. The workshop homework will be altered by replacing the easier problems with drylabs to be reported to the current web-based homework system before the workshops take place.



Quick Links:

State University of New York Main Page...