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.

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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Getting Graduate Students Comfortable with their Power

A little background: within Physics 691G, we do a two-week unit on issues of identity in the classroom. We segue into the unit by thinking about the challenges in evaluating teaching which is done in the context of the new grads observing more experienced TAs. After we explore the challenges of evaluating teaching, the new grads complete an worksheet based upon an exercise developed by Kirsten Helmer of TEFD. In this assignment, the new grads must they explicitly consider their positionality along multiple axes. We then spend two weeks looking at case studies of various interactions within the classroom. During the first week, we investigate situations where the new grads identity as a student is salient. The second week, we move to situations where their identity as instructors is more relevant. In that second week, many of the new grads seemed uncomfortable with the power that being in an “instructor” role bestows.

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Advice for Ph.D. students interested in transitioning to teaching-based positions

I get the following question fairly regularly, “I am a Ph.D. student interested in pursuing a career that is teaching intensive, either as a lecturer like yourself or as a faculty member at a teaching-intensive institution. How do I do it? What advice do you have?” I am flattered to be asked this question. Below I give my thoughts which are based in my experience. As they say in the TV-ads, “your results may vary.” In fact, the older this post gets, the less valuable/accurate this will probably be!

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