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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


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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.

  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


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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


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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.....


    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.
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