How to go about directing future improvements to courses?

I am at an interesting point for the first time. I have been teaching the 131 and 132 courses here at UMass for several years and thinking about how to seek continued improvement in an effective way. I know of some faculty who continually do overhauls to keep things interesting and fresh for themselves and for their students. This technique has merits as an interested teacher has intrinsic benefits.

I want, however, to continue to improve my courses in a way that builds upon the successes.

Reflecting on previous iterations, most have been centered on a key pedagogical principle: active learning, team based learning, backward design, flipped, etc. I think this path still has room.

I am thinking about those things that students mention as being particularly engaging: the myosin fibers in the energy unit, the spontaneous structure formation in the entropy unit, the circuit-based study of the neuron in 132. All of these have what is called by Redish et al as “biologically authentic examples.” I would like to both continue to find more, and find ways to integrate them more deeply into the curriculum. Perhaps a case-study type format?

We gave a workshop on GTA training programs based on P691G!

Today, I, along with Jake Shechter and Sara Feyzbakhsh, gave a workshop on developing GTA/TO training programs as part of Diversity Lunch Talk series hosted by the UMass-Amherst Institute for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development. We had a group of people from all over the university from Comparative Literature to Microbiology.

In the workshop, participants thought about the TA-training needs for their specific departments and also what resources might be available as far as implementing their training goals. The workshop ended with participants thinking about designing an activity to facilitate TA skill development.

As part of building this workshop, we completely revamped the P691G portion of this website. This series of pages on our particular course now goes into rather extensive detail and includes a survey of the different pedagogical techniques that we use. The goal is to provide an easily navigable resource for people to gain inspiration for their own programs.

Thanks to Jake and Sara for helping me refine this course as well as in assisting in the development and facilitation of this workshop.

Application of Active Learning Techniques to Upper Division Courses

Today, I led the discussion for the new(ish) 5-College PER Lunch which co-convened with the bi-monthly UMass Physics Teaching Lunch. The topic was the application of active learning techniques to upper division courses.

Much of the research literature has been on the application of active learning techniques to lower-division and introductory courses. The unique challenges of upper division courses often result in feelings that similar techniques will not work for these more advanced offerings. However, we know that actively is how people actually learn. The purpose of this session was to brainstorm the challenges and then, for break into groups to explore ways of implementing these techniques in the upper division.

The slides which guided today’s session can be found here.

Addendum: Gary Felder, from Smith College, wanted to share his active exercises for Math Methods which can be found at

Thinking about integrated labs in the Team-Based-Learning Format of P131

As we near the end of the semester, Physics 131 is once again finishing up with a unit on the statistical interpretation of entropy (not a typical topic for an introductory algebra-based course). This unit gets started with two labs: one systematically playing the famous Monty Hall problem and a second models the free expansion/compression of a gas using coins. While I do not have strong evidence for this belief, I feel that these two labs are the strongest two labs we do all semester. Students seem to really engage with these two labs and the act of doing the experiments really seems to add to student understanding in ways I do not see with other labs in the course. Even our much celebrated lab investigating the bio-mechanical ground-reaction forces of the human jump doesn’t seem to engage our students as much. Why? What is the “magic sauce” of these two labs? How can we modify the other labs of the course to achieve these same ends?

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