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Physics Challenge Exam

  1. Dec 21, 2015 #1
    Hello fellow physicists,
    I teach first and second year physics at a community college. In particular, I teach two algebra based- and three calculus-based physics courses. I wanted to know if any of you have used any type of challenge exams to place out of the first year physics course. I am also researching to see if there are any standard exams that we can use to evaluate our students at the end of the semesters.

    PS. I hope I am clear enough. My boss asked me to research, but I have not found any. I know chemistry has standard exams for intro classes.

    - Thank you!
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 22, 2015 #2
    I think the AP Physics tests are as good as it gets.
  4. Dec 22, 2015 #3
    Thanks for the response Dr. Courtney! Do you know if College Board would allow colleges to use their test as a placement test? I doubt it. I need to look into that.
    I may end up making my own custom test that has the rigor of the AP exam.
  5. Dec 22, 2015 #4

    Andy Resnick

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    We don't allow 'credit by exam' for our Physics courses; I'm not sure who approved AP credit policy here- it's a university policy, the registrar's office simply applies the policy.

    As for 'standard exams' in Physics, there are a few, the Force Concept Inventory is perhaps the best-known:


    But I'm not sure that's really what you mean.
  6. Dec 22, 2015 #5


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  7. Dec 23, 2015 #6
    I'm sure that the rigor of the MIT placement exams is adequate. But having been intimately involved with placement exams at the Air Force Academy and in discussions about them at other institutions, I have a concern that at many institutions, there is often pressure to dumb down the placement and challenge exams so that credit gained by passing the exams represents much less knowledge, skills, and abilities than actually passing the course. In contrast, using a nationally normed and recognized exam (such as the AP) provides a recognized level of quality that the department, the downstream courses, and other institutions that may accept transfer credit can all have confidence in (or at least they can know what standard was used.)

    It is very hard to write a 2-3 hour exam that properly represents the content of a 4-5 credit hour physics course, especially if the course includes a lab. If a student was awarded credit by earning a 4 or 5 on a given AP physics test, I (and many faculty who teach intro courses) have an immediate confidence level regarding what that means and what downstream courses the student is prepared for at our schools. In contrast, I have very little confidence in credit awarded by a challenge exam that is unique and proprietary to most state universities and community colleges.
  8. Dec 24, 2015 #7
    From my understanding, many schools in California, particularly the UC system, will not take CLEP test. Either AP credit or a letter grade are used to receive credit.
  9. Dec 24, 2015 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    When I was a student, MIT simply did not offer credit for 8.02. (8.01, yes, but not 8.02) Their position was "you took it, but you didn't take it from us". It was felt that if you really knew the material, you could still register for the class, and it wouldn't take all that much of your time. If you didn't know the material, it would be a good thing to make you sit through the class again, no?

    I agree that the AP test is as good as it gets. I don't think it's very good, though.
  10. Dec 25, 2015 #9


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    I teach physics at a community college in California, and in the past we have done this. It was very time-consuming for us to come up with an exam and agree on it as a department, then administer and grade the exam. We also had cases where we invested time and effort in the process, and then the student flaked out and said they didn't want to do the exam after all. In recent years we've just decided that there was no clear benefit to doing this, so we stopped doing it. A student who has a strong physics background could simply take the AP exam. Note that although it costs money to take AP exams, there is generous financial aid available for students who need it.

    The FCI has been superseded by the IBCM. In any case, the authors of these tests have specifically be asked that they not be used in high-stakes situations, because that would provide an incentive for students to obtain copies of the tests, which is not particularly difficult to do. The purpose of these tests is pedagogical research and allowing instructors to get a reality check on the effectiveness of their own teaching. Using them for high-stakes purposes risks invalidating them as research tools.
  11. Dec 26, 2015 #10
    Thank you all!! You have given a lot to mull over :) I don't get too many students who ask for a waiver. I needed a solution for those rare occasions and AP exam seems to be the route to go at this point. I looked for details about the physics CLEP exam in College Board website, and surprisingly physics was not listed!
    (Link: https://clep.collegeboard.org/exams/offered). I will look into MIT exams, but I feel that they might be too rigorous for my need.

    I had a second part to my question. I was looking for a common final exam for the intro physics courses. I am the physics lead faculty and as such I was given the responsibility of having the final evaluations same across the board. The reason is that many of our courses are taught by adjunct instructors and it becomes challenging to maintain a uniform evaluation, especially when adjunct faculties don't stick around for too long. From your expert input, I gather that making my own test would be the best. Thank you everyone!!

  12. Dec 26, 2015 #11
    At the Air Force Academy, Math, Physics, and Chemistry departments all used final exams common across sections in their intro courses. These exams were developed by senior faculty to have uniform evaluations, and it worked very well. I can see how a similar approach would be appealing when there is a high turnover rate among adjuncts.

    Because there tend to be differences in learning objectives and topic coverage from one school to another, it probably is best for you to make a common final exam that accurately reflects the topics and learning objectives of the physics course at your school, but you want to make sure the adjuncts understand this from the beginning of the semester. They would be putting their students at a disadvantage if they emphasize conceptual understanding all semester and the final exam emphasizes quantitative problem solving.
  13. Dec 26, 2015 #12
    Agreed, Dr. Courtney! We do have an Adjunct conference prior to every semester, and this would be emphasized to them very well.
  14. Dec 26, 2015 #13
    When I took college physics as part of an engineering curriculum, the three professors of physics, who were also teaching physics majors as well as other engineering disciplines at the same time, also used jointly developed common exams. No matter your major, everybody took the same introductory exams. That was a rather long time ago.

    Regarding other types of common or 'standardized' exams, might there be teachers at other schools, perhaps in your geographical area or accessible via professional groups, who might be willing to either exchange some past exams with you for yours or even get together to jointly develop some exams.? And you are not obligated to use a completely identical test. Always interesting to benchmark.
  15. Dec 26, 2015 #14
    Great point alw34. We do have some fantastic 4-year institution surrounding my college, here in Maryland. Majority of our students end up in these colleges. So, it would be nice to look at that avenue as well. Thanks for your suggestion!
  16. Dec 26, 2015 #15


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    The empirical evidence is that devoting most of class time on conceptual understanding enhances conceptual understanding without any reduction in problem-solving ability. It's a win-win. There's some discussion of the evidence for this in Mazur, Peer Instruction: A User's Manual. Of course, this assumes that the students are being given homework and feedback so that they can practice the problem-solving skills, and also that they have a text that presents the techniques.
  17. Dec 26, 2015 #16
    I suppose this is possible in principle, and there may be some places where it is actually practiced.

    In my experience, a lot of college credit in physics courses is being handed out under the pretense that students understand the concepts, when in reality they are incapable of solving almost any problem requiring the addition of vectors.

    If it is not needed to pass the exams, many students will not learn it. It is a fantasy to pretend students can solve problems unless they are demonstrating it on exams. It is straightforward to write exam problems that require mastery of concepts. I haven't seen many exam problems that focus on concepts that also require mature problem solving skills.
  18. Dec 26, 2015 #17


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    Yes, problem solving certainly needs to be tested on exams. The empirical evidence I referred to above (described in the Mazur book) was from exams that included problem solving.

    This may depend on whether their conceptual understanding is really being probed. The classic observation described in Mazur, which I have reproduced myself many times, is that if you make a scatter plot of students' scores on the FCI/IBCM versus their scores on plug-and-chug problem-solving, you get a triangle filling in one side of the main diagonal, with essentially all students doing better on problem-solving than on the conceptual stuff. But the IBCM does require deep conceptual understanding. It's quite possible that many instructors give points that they claim are for conceptual stuff when in fact the tasks don't really require much conceptual understanding.

    Students who can ace the IBCM but can't do problem-solving are basically nonexistent. This is documented in the studies described in Mazur, and it's also something I've found very consistently with my own students for a couple of decades.
  19. Dec 26, 2015 #18
    One big challenge colleagues and I have faced focusing class time on concepts is that mission and curriculum creep keep the syllabus so packed with topics and the mathematical preparation (algebra and trig, mostly) of the average student is so poor, students really have no realistic chance at solving quantitative homework problems unless considerable time is spent modeling quantitative problems.

    The best workaround we've found so far has been to shift some of the modeling of problem solving to instructional videos (1 per class). Students are motivated to watch the videos, because the problems that get solved are very close to assigned homework problems, and this frees up 10-15 minutes in each class that would otherwise need to be used to model problem solving.

    See: http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1204/1204.2462.pdf
  20. Dec 26, 2015 #19


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    The video project sounds interesting. Do you have a sample that's publicly available so I could see what one is like?

    My general feeling about examples of problem solving is that that's why we have a textbook. If I do an example on the board, it's usually because I have some kind of a highly interactive shtick where I'm going to force the students to participate.
  21. Dec 26, 2015 #20
    My experience is that students who are capable of learning from examples in the book are already pretty good at both math and problem solving. Book examples tend to leave out way too many steps for the average student (in my experience.)

    The paper has links to the youtube channels of the co-authors. There is quite a bit of variability in style.


    https://www.youtube.com/user/BearTrueFaith/videos (Dr. Amy Courtney)

    https://www.youtube.com/user/AgainstAllEnemies1/videos (Lt Col Ret Tom Slusher)

    https://www.youtube.com/user/SupportAndDefend1/videos (me)
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