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Tuning Physcs curriculum?

  1. May 14, 2010 #1

    Andy Resnick

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    "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    This month's Physics Today had an article about the Bologna Process- a comprehensive reform of the EU's higher education system. There was also a brief bit about how that process can be implemented in the US. Two things stood out (to me):

    1) European students objected to "requiring quizzes, homework, and attendance, rather than evaluating students solely on big final exams, as too micromanaging and make(ing) university too much like secondary school"

    2) The US lists skills that a BS in Physics should imply. These are "An understanding of the role of evidence, of cause and effect, of experiment, of scientific ethics, of science as a community effort. A bachelor should have estimation skills, understand simple models, practice laboratory safety, be able to carry out error analysis, and be able to present an informal talk on a lab experiment of class project"

    I am wondering what people here think of these. Specifically, my students are terrified of the idea of a single exam constituting 100% of their grade. Also, the skills list has *nothing* to do with physics specifically, and relates to nearly any STEM major. Why isn't there requirement for a physics BS to obtain some specific skills *in physics*? Specific knowledge, for example.
     
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  3. May 14, 2010 #2

    ZapperZ

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    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    1. Students who have to go through a similar educational system such as the UK are used to having one large, important exams that determine their fate. The A-Level exam is one such example where it really doesn't matter how you did in school throughout the year, it is how you perform on that one test on that day. So such a means of testing is something they are used to.

    This is not the case for US students, for example, where the grades depend a little bit on a more consistent performance throughout the school year or the duration of the course.

    2. No opinion as of yet.

    Zz.
     
  4. May 14, 2010 #3
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    In my country (in south america), homework is only really important in the beginning years (elementary school). After you reach 14-15 years, your grade is defined by exams. You may earn a few more points doing homework or extra activities, but it's not significant (only 10% of final grade in my school). This is also valid after high school. It's not a big deal. (University admission is defined by a single examination in your last year of "high school". There's no teacher recomendations or school records involved).

    I really think homework shoudn't be mandatory. I think you should only do it if you're having trouble understanding your subject. During my elementary school years I had to use a lot of time doing (quite mechanically) homeworks from subjects I understand very well. I'm sure this time would be much better invested learning new things instead of just doing something for a grade.

    I've learnt a lot more (both for life and academically) through all my school exams and science olympiads. I've also talked with many people who have spent one or more years in a American school: they've found it incredibly easy (even those ones who weren't talented at all) since the weight given to homeworks is much larger there than here. Result: when they came back to my country, their grades droped considerably.
     
  5. May 14, 2010 #4

    Andy Resnick

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    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    That's interesting- my students say they like the immediate feedback they get from regular homework, it helps them feel more confident that they understand the material. Or it's a warning that they don't understand it as well as they should.

    Either way, it's peripheral to any discussion regarding *subject competence*. I'm thinking long-term: how to get the students (mostly non-majors) to understand that physics is a tool they can use, and it's a very useful tool.
     
  6. May 14, 2010 #5

    Office_Shredder

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    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    Getting feedback from homework and having it count as part of their final grade are different things
     
  7. May 15, 2010 #6
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    Yeah, people still do the homework and studies for the quizzes even if it just counts for ~5-10% of your grade and don't count for anything higher than a passing grade, but that allows for people who have a firm grasp of the material already to skip those.

    Almost every course I have taken have been in that way, ~100% of the grade is from the exam but you can retake it. I think that this is a much better system than having a lot of small moments without the ability to retake any of them.
     
  8. May 15, 2010 #7
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    I'm from the UK and that's where I went to university. For all of my courses throughout I was always given very regular (mandatory) homework - however my marks in that homework didn't amount to a single percentage point for my overall result, it was merely a tool to make sure we were doing the work.

    The only times my exams (bar classes that had lab sessions, where that counted) that didn't have an exam worth 100% were classes that had two or more exams. There would be class tests worth perhaps 30% of the overall grade.

    I always found that I didn't like the fact that the final exams meant so much, it was a lot of pressure to take - especially since often all of the exams for a year would be done in a single diet over, say, two weeks. So there would be a years worth of coursework, maybe 6-8 exams in 2 weeks. But then, at the time I never really considered properly any other way of doing it - giving marks for unsupervised homework doesn't seem to make sense from the Universities point of view, my graduating class was very small (8 people) so it would be have been extremely easy for us to collude for every submission and all be set up somewhere in the region of 100%.
     
  9. May 15, 2010 #8

    thrill3rnit3

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    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    Oh how I always dream of this happening in the U.S.
     
  10. May 15, 2010 #9
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    assigning HW for a grade is annoying, because then the professor cannot provide you with the answer (not the solution)! HW should always have an answer paired with it for the student to see if he worked the problem correctly.

    My AP physics teacher graded our homework on effort while providing the answers. It was the most right and coolest way to approach HW I've ever seen.
     
  11. May 15, 2010 #10
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    I think the UK system of "final exam" for 'A' level is good. If you have bad teachers then you can just forget them 'cause its between you and the examiner. This doesn't work so well at University as there is no national curriculum, so bad lecturers can feed you any old rubbish. So quiz current students to find out which course are naff (what else is physics forum for?!)
     
  12. May 15, 2010 #11
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    I've experienced both types of schooling. I'm an American university student but I studied in New Zealand for a semester which has a similar system to the UK. Most classes there might have a two exams making up most of the grade, possibly a large project, and sometimes a very small homework percentage. I feel like I actually learn the material better in the American system because you are forced to learn the material as you go (regular homework grades). With the other system, I found myself putting off learning some things until I was forced to for the final exam. If you can stay on top of everything it works well though because you have more freedom to learn the material when you have time and more or less at your pace. However, some people just aren't very good at taking exams, so I think the system is somewhat unfair from that vantage point.

    I think I prefer the American system, but that's just because its what I'm used to. It makes sense that Europeans would prefer the European system since that's what they're used to.
     
  13. May 16, 2010 #12
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    Personally I'd prefer a licensure model. Your grade is determined by the test, but you can take the test as many times as you want. Also I'd advocate heavy use of pre-tests. Before you take a class, you are given an off-the-record tests, and if you don't have the basic skills to take the class, you are advised not to take it.

    Also, I have my doubts about a) one size fits all standards since there are lots of different ways of teaching physics and b) even stronger doubts about committee created curriculum processes. I also hate the words "reform" and "process" when it comes to education, because when people talk about "reform" and 'process" nothing usually gets done, because people don't agree what needs to be changed.

    I think the difference is the consequence of doing badly on the exam. European schools tend to filter before admission whereas US schools tend to filter after admission. One bad exam grade in the US could get you "weeded out" and change your entire life, whereas my understanding is that once you get into college, this doesn't tend to happen.

    Also there is a maturity factor. Overall, it's a good thing that pretty much everyone in the US can get into college, but one of the consequences of this is that colleges have been forced to become babysitters to teach some life skills, and I don't think that element exists as much in European colleges.

    There is a mode of thinking that would argue that US colleges shouldn't have this role, but then we'd have to find some other institution to do this, and there seems to be a social consensus in the US that colleges are a better place for this than the military as well as a social consensus that strongly frowns on strong limits to college admissions.

    I think this has to do with the "remarketing" of the physics major as a general numerical modeller. One problem that physics has is that there is a lot of rethinking of what the physics major is, now that the Cold War sugar daddy is no longer there, and that all of the academic money is in biotech.

    Personally, I think it's a good thing.
     
  14. May 16, 2010 #13
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    This is exactly how we do it where I go, I really love this system. This means that failing a course or getting a bad grade in it doesn't really matter as long as you eventually learn the material. If you had a bad day on that test you can just go and retake it some other day.

    And most of all it allows the professors to set the bar really high, we have some tests which fails 2/3rds of the class in the third year and this class has the highest standard in my country! Usually they just fail roughly 25% on each exam. But it is no biggie since what happens is that they are just forced to study a lot for the next test, they are not forced to retake the entire course or anything like that. Also to most there is too much work to try to retake all exams till they get an A, just something like 1-2% get a perfect score even though it is so easy to retake everything, most are happy with just getting passing grades and you have no problems getting a job with that since the companies knows that the bar is set really high.

    I think that this system is way better than what you got in the American universities where failing a course basically means that you have to graduate later and the grade do not tell anything about your current knowledge but about the knowledge you had back then when you took the test but also how diligent you were with homework and such since they are a significant factor.
     
    Last edited: May 16, 2010
  15. May 16, 2010 #14
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    One hard part to make this work (and the reason we don't have the system in place) is that it's non-trivial to get the financing to work right. Higher education financing is based largely on having a certain number of warm bodies taking a class, and if you go with something different then we have to think of a way of getting the financing to work. It's also non-trivial to figure out what would be on a licensure test. If you put control of the test in the professor, then you end up with the current system. If you set up an external bureaucracy to administer tests (ETS) then the contents of the tests become extremely inflexible.

    Also Western Governor's University tried the licensure model, and I've been told that they ran into the problem of having a student take a course, and then getting annoyed that they had to take a whole other course to get grades for the course.

    The Bologna Process article is behind a pay wall, and the articles that I've seen about it just "smell bad". Massive amounts of bureaucratic doublespeak, nothing "real" going on.

    But that may not be the point. The problem that it seems that Bologna is trying to fix is to try to get different degrees and credentials in Europe to be compatible with each other, at which point you are going to have massive committee meetings full of politics and bureaucracy, since the basic issue that you are trying to resolve (i.e. how to get a physics credential in Poland recognized in Spain) is basically an issue that doesn't involve physics education at all.
     
  16. May 16, 2010 #15
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    There are different ways of skinning a cat, which is why I think it's not a good idea to try to find an ideal system.

    East Asian systems tend to be highly test oriented for college admissions, and one reason people like the system is that it's transparent and much less prone to corruption. If you have a committee decide who gets in, there is all sorts of opportunities for "funny business", but if you have everyone take the same exam, you can see exactly what answers you got right, what answers you got wrong, what the criteria was for getting in the university, and so there is much less room to argue corruption in the system.
     
  17. May 16, 2010 #16
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    You mean how much the students have to pay? It is fairly trivial here since higher education is free anyway. The government pays based on how many passes the course and since everyone who wants to graduate needs to pass sooner or later it works. I guess that it would be way more complicated with fees like in the US.
     
  18. May 16, 2010 #17
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    First I think it's necessary to establish that physics really is a tool that they can use and it's a useful tool for non-majors, and it's not obvious to me that it is. The reason that I say this is that I study physics and math for reasons that are basically quasi-religious, and absent those reasons it's not clear to me at all that I would find physics to be "useful."

    This involves some deep questions on what the role of higher education is and what defines "useful." In some ways, I'd argue that by college it's likely to be somewhat late to change the way someone looks at the world in any fundamental way, and the standard student-teacher interaction doesn't provide enough contact to create much change.
     
  19. May 16, 2010 #18
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    Or how much someone has to pay. Or how much someone has to not pay. If you can figure out how to set up a system in which you can get licensure tests without spending money to get certain things to happen, that's fine.

    A huge fraction of higher educational funding in the US comes from the Federal and State government, and changing the way that this funding happens is something that is slow, complex, and difficult.

    The big problem is cross-subsidization. In the US, colleges and universities, introductory courses tend to be a lot cheaper to teach than advanced courses, but tuition remains pretty much the same, and a lot of the money that you gain from intro courses gets put into research. If you go to a licensure model than what will likely happen is that everyone will try to test out of the lower division courses, which removes the revenue stream for upper division and graduate courses.

    Just to give an example of the problem, I could put together an MIT 8.01 course using OpenCourseware that is just as good as the one that that MIT teaches but for a lot less tuition. If MIT lets everyone that passes the 8.01 exam get MIT credit for 8.01, then it loses a huge amount of revenue.

    Where is here? Part of the reason it's nice to look at how different countries handle things is that it's useful to know how things can be very, very different.

    Also, the fact that students don't pay for exams can make things more difficult, since once you get government money involved there is a whole set of constraints and difficulties. None of this stuff is trivial, and one thing that I find extremely frustrating is when you have a good educational idea that runs into problems for political, financial or administrative reasons, but this is something that I've gotten used to.

    Just to name one thing. If something (anything) becomes the test that you have to pass to be licensed, then anything that goes on the test is going to be a political minefield, because by changing the test you increase or decrease the amount of money and power that some group makes or doesn't make.
     
    Last edited: May 16, 2010
  20. May 16, 2010 #19
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    These are good points, and ones I hadn't considered. For a little extra info on how the programmes work for anyone that is curious: In the UK (for England, remove a year from these figures..I'm Scottish!), the degree programme is either 4 or 5 years with years 1 and 2 essentially acting as qualifiers. The students must pass all of the exams in first and second year at some point, and their average determines whether or not they are allowed to pursue the Bsc or undergraduate masters (Msci) - a C+ average will allow for the Bsc, and B+ is Msci, should one choose it.

    And for the second point, the institutions I have had experience with certainly do not 'baby sit' students so I guess this rings true, though I don't know what it's like in the States. I do think, however, that too many students are able to qualify for university in the UK. I think that our previous government put too much emphasis on just 'going to university' to boost the figures, and thus at high school by far the majority of information given to final year students is about university - very little is offered in terms of alternatives. This means we have lots of courses offered that may even be called extraneous - courses where, upon completion, ones chance of gaining employment is barely improved.

    I do also think that our universities have to take a position of responsibility and place more emphasis on employability, there are many courses that are jam-packed with students, despite the university being well aware that 99% of them have no chance in getting a job in that, or related fields. At the university I attended, for instance, we have in the low tens-of-thousands of students - and approximately 500 in each year of a psychology degree.

    As a different type of example, with the recession we are struggling with positions for law apprenticeships. Despite this, the universities that offer our legal practice course have dramatically increased intake, without caring to mention to students that most law companies have ceased recruiting for the next year, or two. I know there is an onus on the student as well, and they should find things like this out beforehand - but people do tend to get caught up in the idea of now, and putting off thoughts of later. I see no reason why the university can't help here. They aren't entirely businesses here in the UK.
     
  21. May 16, 2010 #20
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    That's also a criticism of US colleges and universities.....

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/weekinreview/16steinberg.html?hpw

    One thing I do think needs to be done with physics curriculum is to focus more on vocational-technical institutes. How to put together a course on basic MIT 8.01 physics that would be useful to an auto mechanic or air conditioning repair man?

    The other thing that I think needs to be done is to open up channels for people that go to vo-tech schools so that they don't end up being "second class citizens". OK, you got your air conditioning repair man certificate and you've ended up with a semi-successful business. Now is the time for you to get the Ph.D. in astrophysics that you've always wanted.

    This also opens up other issues in higher education. There is a point of view that it is the purpose of a college to be a "alma mater" (i.e. an foster mother). One problem is that the role of a college as an "alma mater" conflicts with the need for colleges to be financially stable.
     
  22. May 17, 2010 #21
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    Sweden, but different universities do it differently. Most just allows you to retake the exams till you pass which gets the strange consequence that for example law students often purposely fails exams if they aren't sure to get the highest grade.

    Also there is no standard test but instead it is up to each professor to do it. The problem with doing a standard test is that it would be impossible for the different institutions to agree on what should be included and how much credits they should grant. It isn't uncommon that some places gives out twice the credits for the same courses for example.

    Now, why are the professors not just making the courses as easy as possible? Because that would hurt the reputation of the school. But this allows for some to study things slower by going to a worse institution and others to study things faster rather than everyone doing everything at the same speed.

    My 3 years degree for example had enough courses to by US standards fill a maths major, physics major and had several engineering courses as well.(It was an engineering degree, the requirements for those in the US are not as clear so I do not know if it would be acreditet or so) On the other hand if you study physics at the university next door you would barely get enough courses for a physics major in the same time. Guess who has an easier time getting jobs or getting into grad school afterwards?
     
  23. May 17, 2010 #22

    Andy Resnick

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    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    It's interesting how this discussion has focused more on the grade/passing the class, rather than comparing "learning outcomes". Does one approach better prepare a student for the next step? (I don't know the answer to this...)

    I suspect most of the people here are self-motivated and would do homework (or attend class) regardless of course credit. This is not the case for the non-major who must take Physics I and II as part of the general education requirement. Uniformly, those students do not want to take the class, don't care what grade they get (as long as their career plans are not impeded by a B or C), and want to get past the class as easily as possible. I don't make attendance mandatory, but if I do not assign a token 5% credit for homework, reading quizzes, etc, students will not do them.

    Sure, the student that does no work will fail the tests, but in the end, that student will resent not only the course, but fail to see why Physics is useful *to them*. Those are the students that will forever joke about how hard physics is, how "those scientists" don't live in the real world, and end up being the portion of the voting public that votes against school funding, against NASA, against research programs, and will be open to arguments that evolution must be taught as part of a 'fair and balanced' curriculum.

    And the reality is that if I don't get students to sign up for my class, the administration will not be happy with me. That's the financial side of running a university. The more MBAs decide higher education should be run like a business, the more universities will come to resemble profit-seeking businesses and less like centers for education. Introductory physics classes are money-losers, period. UC Berkely is contemplating making *all* their introductory classes on-line only.

    http://chronicle.com/article/California-Dreaming-Remaki/65446/

    Surely, there is value for a biology, chemistry, sociology, psychology, or physical therapy major to use quantitative methods- at bottom, the real 'niche' of physics is that *quantitative models* are used to predict physical behavior. Engineers understand this already.

    Let be specific: I do not expect any of my students to remember how to ray trace a lens, or how to calculate the rotational inertia of a falling stick 10 years after they take my class. But, I *do* expect them to remember the conservation of energy, if for no other reason that they don't get swindled by magnetic power boosters for their gas line. There's other topics specific to my students (mostly physical/occupational therapy).

    I agree, the topics of the introductory curriculum need an overhaul but there are real barriers making this difficult. There seems to be a real resurgence of the 'demo', and that could help making the topics more accessible. The goal should not be focused on increasing the pass rate or decreasing the stress, but rather broadening the appeal and treating the students like adults.

    Is it worth getting a BS? Only if we make the BS worthwhile.
     
  24. May 17, 2010 #23
    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    Once you get into outcomes, you get into some very deep philosophical discussions.

    On physics or anything else that's geeky. If you have me sit in class or committee meetings memorizing things that I don't think are relevant or useful, then I'm going to bolt.

    At that point, we have to ask the question of what purpose does the general education requirement serve? Why are we forcing people to sit in classes that they don't want to take?

    Part of the real answer to this question is that we are trying to socialize students into be nice, obedient cogs in the grand corporate machine. The real purpose behind general education requirements is not to train thinkers, but to train office workers that will sign the forms and push the buttons that their boss tells them do.

    If the purpose of a bachelor's degree is to prepare people for the workforce, then we have to acknowledge the truth that the real point of a college degree is not to show that you can think, but to prove to the employer that you can *obey* and *conform*. Employers don't care if you learn something in class. What they *do* care about is that you can sit in a boring lecture for two hours and give the right answers when asked.

    They actually aren't. If they were money-losers, people would want to get rid of them. If you calculate the tuition that the university gets from intro classes, and then subtract the cost to administer those classes, you'll find they they are massive money makers. The fact that they are money majors leads to some extremely dysfunctional behavior.

    If intro physics were losing money, the thing that would happen is that schools would just drop the requirement. Because they are such cash cows, the response is to try to squeeze even more money out of them by cutting costs.

    The other thing is that I've learned to respect football players, and I've also learned to respect MBA's. The thing about a university is that it *is* a business, and this remains true as long as universities accept tuition and pay employees. Education is an industry.

    Which I think is a great idea, because once you put everything online, people will wonder why you need to take the class at UCB. They are cutting their own throats here. Great!!!!

    Sure but the logical thing here is not to force people to take any courses that they don't want to, and to abolish general education requirements completely.

    One big problem here is that a lot of college students *aren't* adults. Some are. Some aren't. College is at this very awkward age between childhood and adulthood, and one of the purposes of college is to provide a semi-supervised environment where people can do seriously stupid things without much long term damage. Figuring out when to get drunk and who to sleep with is more important than anything you are likely to learn in a physics lecture.

    If you teach physics to a group of people whose median age is 45, you get a very, very different social dynamic than if you teach physics to a group of people whose median age is 20. Part of the difference is that if I'm dealing with a 20 year-old, I probably do feel qualified to lecture them about poor work habits. This just isn't going to happen if I'm talking to a 55 year-old.

    Maybe, but we really have to have a good discussion of what the bachelor's degree *really* signifies.
     
  25. May 17, 2010 #24

    lisab

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    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    This is the crux of the matter.

    Before a process can be altered, one needs to know, What is the product of the process? Is the process supposed to make cogs, or independent and/or unorthodox thinkers?
     
  26. May 17, 2010 #25

    Andy Resnick

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    Re: "Tuning" Physcs curriculum?

    I can assure you they are- are you forgetting the labs? There is an *immense* level of effort required to operate our introductory classes. We want them totally full, *year round*, to minimize the costs of running the courses.
     
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